Traditional AA, Repression, Oppression, and Alienation

How’s that for a title?

A discussion of a traditional AA fellowship’s repetition of God language turned up today on Facebook. The poster was upset by the repeated references, and not only references but worshipful statements about God, Jesus, etc. (not to be confused with the Wilco song “Jesus, Etc.”). Some of the comments struck me as dismissive—the poster was told that they needed to keep going in order to counter this discourse, and that although this is annoying, the benefits of staying in meetings is worth it. I needed a minute to understand why I felt as upset about the dismissive responses as I did. (Reading Herbert Marcuse’s essay “Repressive Tolerance” later in the day has helped me clarify it further still.)

The problem of God-discourse in AA meetings is not the personal problem of an individual non-believer. It is not merely something that individual must cope with in some way. That is because the God-discourse is part of a religious ideology that is dominant and can overtake meetings thoroughly. No matter how much it is repeated that AA is a “spiritual program, not a religious program,” this ideological discourse sets up a division in the fellowship, between those who believe in or at least comply with the ideology and those who cannot. In the dominant ideology of AA, believing or complying are called necessary for sobriety and recovery. Members are exposed in every traditional meeting to a main text, a set of steps, a set of traditions, and innumerable documents and utterances that refer to God or Higher Power. Moreover, members are called upon to follow the program. There is a coercive atmosphere surrounding the 12 Steps, the book of Alcoholics Anonymous, and the sponsor-sponsee relationship—all of which demand “strict adherence.” That is the context in which the word “God” is spoken.

It is not plausible in this situation that an individual non-believer would incur no social penalty or cost for maintaining and expressing their non-belief. A non-believer is immediately unlike the group. A non-believer who expresses their non-belief stands against the ideology; the non-believer is alienated by non-belief. That alienation is unavoidable, and has nothing to do with whether the group tolerates or suppresses the non-believer. Every truly traditional AA fellowship oppresses the non-believer, because even in their most magnanimous tolerance, the hegemonic power exerted by the fellowship oppresses the non-believer. The non-believer remains alienated simply because they do not believe.

 The problem is political, not moral or personal. The non-believer faces a choice that no believer must face: of finding a way to remain in the fellowship and remaining oppressed, or leaving the fellowship, because of non-belief. Choosing to remain in the fellowship, the non-believer has more work to do, more cost to pay, every meeting and interaction with others in the fellowship. At every moment, the non-believer must choose (what the believer never has to choose) whether to acquiesce, negotiate, resist, or subvert. Each of those choices comes with further social and psychological cost to the non-believer.

Among the costs, one that is particularly hidden is a cost created by the structure of ideological belief. Ideology denies itself as ideology: to the ideological believer, it does not appear to be ideology, but reality. The believer in traditional AA believes that AA is a “big tent,” and that AA welcomes everyone, in accordance with the 3rd Tradition. Any effort by the non-believer to negotiate, resist, or subvert the dominant ideology is met with incredulity, because to the believer, the non-believer’s action is incomprehensible, since there is nothing to negotiate, nothing to resist, and no need to subvert. AA, after all, “never forces anyone to do anything.”

Personally, I have so far chosen to stay in a traditional fellowship. I am open and vocal about my non-belief, including my non-belief in the necessity of the 12 Steps. When I go to meetings, I am prepared to express my non-belief and expose myself to further alienation, and sometimes retribution. I do it because one thing I can profess to is a belief in the goodness of resistance and subversion. My alienation is what makes it clear to me how traditional AA oppresses, and so the experience of alienation is key to understanding that oppression, and the hegemony of religious belief in the fellowship. The greater my understanding, the more I know how to resist and subvert.

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