“Outside issues”

Hanging on many an AA room’s wall is the Twelve Traditions. The Tenth may be the most frequently cited:

Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the A.A. name ought never be drawn into public controversy.

To understand what this means, one might consult Bill Wilson’s Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. Wilson notes the history of conflict in the world, and also within AA itself. This is already strange, since the wording of the Tenth Tradition refers only to outside issues. Certainly, as Wilson notes, AA taking a stand on a current political matter could be disastrous. He cites the example of the Washingtonian Society, a proto-AA group that shifted from its purpose of helping alcoholics into taking an Abolitionist position, and entering other political issues. According to Wilson, that doomed the society. If that’s the meaning of the Tenth Tradition, it is very straightforwardly saying that AA never takes an official, public position on anything. But that is neither how the Tradition functions in reality, nor all that Wilson says to explain it.

Wilson also notes the rancor within an AA fellowship that an argument over politics or religion might cause. This is not explicitly addressed by the language of the 10th Tradition, since it refers to what goes on within AA itself. An argument over politics or religion in an AA meeting is not at all the same thing as AA taking a stand on outside issues. The 10th Tradition is routinely taken to apply to such issues nonetheless, which suggests that there is really a Tradition 10(a), something like: “AA members refrain from discussing outside issues within the confines of AA.”

Politics, in the United States at least, has taken a definite turn toward popular Fascism, with its unique intolerance of difference and disagreement. These are values directly contrary to AA’s. If the purpose of the Tenth Tradition is to preserve AA itself, then at some point, its values of tolerance and respect for disagreement would be threatened by a political environment of Fascism. That is to say, the “outside issue” of Fascism could well become a matter of grave concern for an AA fellowship or AA as a whole. On a less extreme level, perhaps, are the “outside issues” of racism, oppression of people based on sex or gender presentation, or sexual orientation, or religious views.

It’s well-known that “outside issues” is uttered as a phrase in meetings to tell a member to shut up. In some strict AA fellowships, the mere intimation of a second addiction is forbidden as an outside issue. In many groups, members are shut up for mentioning what people consider to be politics. While no one wants to admit it, the 10th Tradition has become an all-purpose mechanism for silencing and censorship. It is not a principle of AA that is being practiced in invoking the 10th Tradition in these ways. It is an attempt to maintain order. It is a form of policing: the exertion of power to control through domination. The purported rationale for this policing is to make meetings safe for members, to avoid internal conflict.

Let’s then consider what Wilson says about internal conflict:

Despite their din, our puny rows never did A.A. a particle of harm. They were just part and parcel of learning to work together. Let it be noted, too, that they were almost always concerned with ways to make A.A. more effective, how to do the most good for the most alcoholics.

I can think of a number of ways that AA might become more effective by directly facing the “outside issues” of racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia (both misnamed, since they are hatreds, not fears), and so forth. Among secular, agnostic, and atheist members, it’s common to face oppression on the basis of these beliefs, and when raised, they are told that these are “outside issues.” Without raising them, how can AA address its own internal issues of racism, sex and gender bias, homo-and-trans-hatred, and intolerance of certain religious points of view?

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