Is Public Controversy Ever Justified?
By Mel B.
What Should We Do When Outside
Theories Conflict with AA Experience?
Volume 33 Issue 8
IT HAS NOW BEEN several months since a prestigious research organization released a lengthy report on its study of alcoholism. From that necessarily technical report, the press and other media seized upon the one element sensational enough to make news: the statement that some alcoholics can and do return to normal drinking. Several of my friends bitterly denounced the report. Many other AA members, identifying themselves as such, wrote angry letters to newspapers and magazines.
Perhaps by this time tempers have cooled enough to let us examine the issue involved in the light of AA principles–assuming that, just before press time for this magazine, we have not been prodded into renewed rage by another supposedly authoritative assurance that alcoholics need not remain abstinent.
An AA member who criticizes such reports usually expresses one concern: that they may harm alcoholics still drinking and encourage some recovered alcoholics to resume drinking. Therefore, it could be argued that AA members, drawing upon considerable experience in this area, have a duty to expose the fallacies in the report.
In my opinion, we have no such duty as AA members. On the contrary, we have a long-standing Tradition about public controversy. At almost every AA meeting, we hear that our Fellowship does not engage in such controversy. Tradition Ten explicitly states that “Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the AA name ought never be drawn into public controversy.”
The Tradition does not disapprove of individuals’ becoming involved, provided they don’t use the AA name or announce that they are members. In fairness to AA, however, it’s plain that no person should leap into a public controversy as an AA member, thus giving the impression that the Fellowship itself is taking a position. There are good reasons why we have always avoided such controversies in the past, and it’s not likely that there will be justification for becoming involved in the future.
Still, it could be argued, AA has always insisted that controlled drinking is an impossibility for the alcoholic. “We are like men who have lost their legs; they never grow new ones,” the Big Book says. “Neither does there appear to be any kind of treatment which will make alcoholics of our kind like other men. We have tried every imaginable remedy. In some instances there has been brief recovery, followed always by a still worse relapse. Physicians who are familiar with alcoholism agree that there is no such thing as making a normal drinker out of an alcoholic. Science may one day accomplish this, but it hasn’t done so yet.”
We should remember that this is offered as an opinion, not as a dogma to be defended at all costs. In 1939, when the Big Book was published, a large number of doctors and social workers probably thought that alcoholics should be able to become controlled drinkers at some point. AA members did not set out to do battle with any of these people and, for that matter, didn’t even argue with alcoholics who thought they could still drink in a controlled manner. Far from warning them of dire consequences, the Big Book authors merely said, in effect, that the proof of the pudding was in the eating. “We do not like to pronounce any individual as alcoholic,” they wrote, “but you can quickly diagnose yourself. Step over to the nearest barroom and try some controlled drinking. Try to drink and stop abruptly. Try it more than once. It will not take long for you to decide, if you are honest with yourself about it. It may be worth a bad case of jitters if you get a full knowledge of your condition.”
In other words, the AA founders were not zealously committed to the task of convincing any person that he might be an alcoholic, or of citing scientific proof that he could never be a controlled drinker. This was something the individual would have to decide for himself, even at the cost of getting drunk again. Is it irresponsible to tell an alcoholic to try drinking again if he thinks he can get away with it? Not really, because any person who believes that he can drink will probably do it no matter what is said to him. Our experience has certainly shown us that alcoholics do not usually respond to logic or intellectual arguments.
When I was drinking, I would have listened to any person, no matter how sleazy his credentials, who told me I could keep on drinking. This questionable reassurance would have counted for more than the advice of 100 experts taking the opposite view. I believed what I wanted to believe, and other members have told me the same thing about themselves. That being so, I do not think many alcoholics are endangered by a scientific report. True, it’s much better to have a prominent think tank suggest that you can drink, but any friendly bartender or drinking companion will serve just as well.
Another argument in favor of entering the controversy could be that controlled drinking is not an outside issue, since rejection of this goal is vital to AA’s program and methods. We should remember, however, that the professional field is external to AA, and it is made up of people with all shades of opinions and beliefs. AA members who work in the field of alcoholism do not really have the right or the duty to speak for AA as a whole, and there will be a great deal of resentment and opposition from professional workers if we try to shape general opinion.
AA’s role in the broad field of alcoholism, as I understand it, is simply to offer our program to those who want it and to cooperate with other alcoholism workers and agencies to help alcoholics, without marrying AA to any specific cause or opinion. Many outside workers and agencies share AA’s views on alcoholism and the recovery process. Others do not and are even critical of AA. In any case, these are outside opinions, even when relating directly to AA’s interests.
We discovered long ago that our success in following the AA program and helping alcoholics depends largely on our own practices and beliefs, and that it isn’t necessary to have the agreement of outsiders. Some professionals in alcoholism, for example, think that AA’s spiritual program is unnecessary and irrelevant, and others believe that AA should relax its Tradition of anonymity. They have a right to hold such opinions, just as we have a right to hold opposite views.
It might also be argued that certain issues are more important than others, that the controversy over controlled drinking warrants parting from tradition so that individual members and the Fellowship can put AA’s name on the line in defense of total abstinence as the only way to recovery. Would this ever be justified? Well, co-founder Bill W. apparently had such issues in mind when he wrote in Twelve Concepts for World Service:
“. . .we cannot and should not enter into public controversy, even in self-defense [emphasis added]. Our experience has shown that, providentially, it would seem, AA has been made exempt from the need to quarrel with anyone, no matter what the provocation. Nothing could be more damaging to our unity and to the worldwide goodwill which AA enjoys, than public contention, no matter how promising the immediate dividends might appear.
“Therefore, it is evident that the harmony, security, and future effectiveness of AA will depend largely upon our maintenance of a thoroughly nonaggressive and pacific attitude in all our public relations. This is an exacting assignment, because in our drinking days we were prone to anger, hostility, rebellion, and aggression. And even though we are now sober, the old patterns of behavior are to a degree still with us, always threatening to explode on any good excuse. But we know this, and therefore I feel confident that in the conduct of our public affairs we shall always find the grace to exert an effective restraint.”
As I reread this, I was reminded of my own feelings some years ago when the question of an alcoholic’s return to controlled drinking was raised. A nonalcoholic friend whom I greatly respected told me that he didn’t think the AA program brought real recoveries from alcoholism. He insisted that real recovery would enable the alcoholic to become a moderate drinker, neither addicted to alcohol nor dependent on AA meetings. Around the same time, some doctors in Cincinnati and other researchers in England were saying that alcoholics ought to be able to drink again with safety and that some were doing so. In one report, there was also a veiled criticism of AA and a hint that the insistence on total abstinence as a condition for recovery might prevent some people from receiving help.
What effect did these pronouncements have on me? Well, it’s right there in the quotation on the Twelfth Concept: My friend’s statement and the doctors’ reports made me angry, hostile, rebellious, and aggressive. I was so mad at my friend that I didn’t even attempt to answer his (I thought) appallingly stupid declaration. As for the experts in Cincinnati and England, I decided sorrowfully that they would have the destruction of thousands of alcoholics to answer for when they arrived at the pearly gate!
Upon examining my feelings, however, I came to see that I was concerned more about my own ego than about the welfare of still-practicing alcoholics. I closely identified myself with AA, and I sometimes obtained approval and respect by informing others that I was an AA member. I wanted people to praise AA as the most effective force in the field of alcoholism. I felt cheated and hurt by any criticism of AA, because it was also a criticism of a way of life in which I had a major investment.
But this, I had to admit, was simply an echo of my drinking behavior: seeking the approval of others or bolstering my own self-esteem by association with a cause or group. It was unrealistic then to expect universal approval, and it is the same in sobriety. No matter how well we AAs do our job or how conscientiously we follow our program, certain people will criticize us. Nor can we expect universal agreement on anybody’s theory, even the question of an alcoholic’s ability to return to controlled drinking. It seems self-evident to us that we are right–all our experience shouts it–but we have to let the facts speak for themselves. Even if our belief proved right in the long run, we would be wrong as individuals and as a society if we became involved in angry accusations and bitter denunciations.
For that matter, it is not surprising that controversy has developed about patterns of recovery for the alcoholic, and I am no longer upset by it. I now see this as a healthy sign that research and study on alcoholism are continuing to grow. In every professional field, there are controversies and conflicting opinions. It is hard to believe, but a recent Wall Street Journal story pointed out, only partly tongue-in-cheek, that aeronautical engineers still argue about what causes an airplane to fly. And the professional and technical journals in every field are full of lively and heated disputes about matters most of us would have thought settled long ago. It is only logical, therefore, that the increasing professionalization of the alcoholism field should be marked by criticism of older theories and discussion of new ones.
Meanwhile, of course, there’s plenty of opportunity for AA members and friends of AA to enter any controversy, if they can do so without involving the AA name or the Fellowship as a whole. I’ve noticed, for example, that several professionals in the alcoholism field have attacked the think tank’s report, so it is being properly challenged by knowledgeable and experienced people. This is the way new ideas and theories are tested and publicized among professionals, and I’m all for it when it moves along in a spirit of friendly debate. That friendly spirit comes hard for us, as recovered alcoholics, and I suppose that’s why Bill W. urged AAs to avoid public controversy.
There will always be controversies and rumors of controversies. After all, if engineers can’t even agree as to why an airplane flies, why shouldn’t there be disputes about the nature and treatment of alcoholism?