Sunday, 5 May 2013
'Live And Let Live', 'Big Book World', and the straw-man argument
There is a fashion in the parts of AA where the Big Book is used extensively as the basis for the programme of recovery to deride so-called 'middle of the road AA'. This creates division and a sense of superiority amongst a self-appointed elite. This is not healthy.
One of the ways this is done is the straw-man argument: to attack a straw man is to present your opponent's position in a caricatured way, refute the caricatured position, and believe you have refuted your opponent's position.
A good example can be found in the lists that are drawn up of standard 'AA sayings', followed by quotations from the book 'Alcoholics Anonymous' (the 'Big Book') that purport to contradict said saying.
Here are some examples:
The saying: 'I don't have an alcohol problem, I have a living problem.'
The retort: 'Page xxiv, paragraph 2: 'In our belief, any picture of the alcoholic which leaves out this physical factor is incomplete.''
What the retort implies about the saying: that this is a denial that alcoholism has a physical element.
How the saying is really used and what it really means: this saying is used to convey the idea that, if you are an alcoholic, your problem is not alcohol per se but how you are living your life, the selfishness and self-centredness that are described as the root of the problem, on page 62 of the Big Book. After all, you cannot take a drink and trigger the physical craving unless you 'decide' to, stone cold sober. The problem therefore resides in the sober mind (page 23 of the Big Book). The message of the Big Book is clear: if we do not throw ourselves into this programme to create our lives ('Doctor's Opinion') with the power and guidance of God ('We Agnostics'), we will drink again. We cannot tackle the alcohol problem head on; we must tackle the living problem, and that in turn will tackle the alcohol problem.
The saying in fact seems perfectly consistent with the totality of the message of the Big Book.
The saying: 'I'm powerless over people, places and things.'
Page 132, paragraph 3: 'We have recovered, and have been given the power to help others.'
Page 122, paragraph 3: 'Years of living with an alcoholic is almost sure to make any wife or child neurotic.'
What the retort implies about the saying: that this denies our harm of others or our ability to help them.
How the saying is really used and what it really means: the saying is really suggesting that we cannot consistently and successfully induce others or the world to change or act as we see fit through sheer force of will. The failure of this approach is described on page 122: 'Each is interested in having his or her wishes respected. We find the more one member of the family demands that the others concede to him, the more resentful they become. This makes for discord and unhappiness' (page 122). The approach is further described on page 66: 'The usual outcome was that people continued to wrong us and we stayed sore. … But the more we fought and tried to have our own way, the worse matters got. As in war, the victor only seemed to win.'
This saying seeks to provide a solution: rather than trying to change the world by force, we accept reality head-on and our inability to change it by a headlong assault of the will. Only then can we seek to contribute to positive change in a harmonious and constructive way.
Saying: 'alcohol was my drug of choice.'
Page 24, paragraph 2: 'The fact is that most alcoholics, for reasons yet obscure, have lost the power of choice in drink.'
What the retort implies about the saying: that this is a denial of powerlessness.
How the saying is really used and what it really means: when people are talking about drug of choice, they are not indicating that they are not powerless but that, when they were using and several different drugs were available, there was one they would typically 'go to'. I identify with this. I had available to me all sorts of drugs, but I drank alcohol. The use of the term 'choice' is perhaps unfortunate as it could cause confusion, but the intent is clear, namely to indicate where one's substance problem chiefly lies.
* * * * *
Now, there are certainly AA sayings that I do disagree with and which I do not believe help. For instance, people are sometimes encouraged to work a step a year or not to worry about the steps at all. But the honest effort to present a solution and counter certain unhelpful ideas can sometimes go too far, tipping over into actively scouring AA sayings for possible contradictions with the Big Book based on a deliberate misreading of the slogan or saying.
I have been guilty of this in the past, but I can now see the foolishness of it.
Firstly, this approach creates division and is unnecessarily antagonistic and vexatious.
Secondly, it blocks me from a lot of the wisdom inherent in these sayings.
To wit (and this may annoy some!):
Acceptance is the answer to all my problems—unless I can accept I have a problem, I will never change; unless I accept you as you are, I will illegitimately try to change you.