“Take offence (phrase): if someone takes offence at something you say or do, they feel upset, often unnecessarily, because they think you are being rude to them.” Collins Dictionary.
“Take offense (idiom): to become angry or upset by something that another person has said or done: to be offended by something. Examples ‘He took offense when I suggested exchanging the gift’; ‘She takes offense at any criticism.’” Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
An A.A. in which no one takes offense is impossible. An A.A. in which people are safe is possible. The second enables people to courteously speak the truth as they see it. The first creates a culture of fear and recrimination in which no safe speaking is possible.
When a newcomer first arrives in A.A. they may be introduced to many things they find offensive. For example:
The AA Big Book labels the alcoholic as sometimes being “mean, egotistical and selfish”.
The Twelve and Twelve states: “The sponsor points out our friend’s life is still unmanageable even though he is sober, that after all, only a bare start on A.A.’s program been made.”
More from the Twelve and Twelve Step 2 “At this juncture his A.A. sponsor usually laughs. This the newcomer thinks, is just about the last straw.”
There is a long section in the Twelve and Twelve for Step 4 where the sponsor has a problem to deal with. It starts: “The sponsors of those who feel they need no inventory are confronted with quite another problem. This is because people who are driven by pride of self, unconsciously blind themselves to their liabilities. These newcomers scarcely need comforting. The problem is to help them discover a chink in the wall their ego has built, through which the light of reason can shine.” And it goes on to suggest ways the sponsor can do this – ways that might offend newcomers!
Twelve and Twelve again on Step 4: “We will be offended by A.A.’s suggested inventory”
Twelve and Twelve, Step 11 “To certain newcomers and to those one-time agnostics who still cling to the A.A. group as their higher power, claims for the power of prayer may, despite all logic and experience in proof of it, still be unconvincing or quite objectionable.”
Bill D, the first person Bill W and Dr Bob got sober, talks of how they laughed at one of his comments, and how it upset him.
And let’s not forget “At some of these we balked”. Some of us when new did not want to do, or disagreed we needed to do, all of the Twelve Steps. A sponsor suggesting otherwise could well hurt our feelings or annoy us, perhaps?
This issue of potentially offending newcomers is amplified by the fact that the newcomer’s alcoholism is an illness of over-sensitivity and ego:
In the Big Book chapter We Agnostics: “We often found ourselves handicapped by obstinacy, sensitiveness, and unreasoning predjudice. Many of us had been so touchy, that even casual mention of spiritual things made us bristle with antagonism.”
Also in the Big Book: “We alcoholics are sensitive people. It takes some of us a long time to outgrow that serious handicap.”
Newcomers may also take offence when it is suggested that their fears and resentments of their present and past are their own responsibility:
The Twelve and Twelve says “It is a spiritual axiom that every time we are disturbed, no matter what the cause, there is something wrong with us.” This does not justify offensive behaviour, but it places its consequences in a different light.
Step 5 in the Twelve and Twelve: “anger and hurt pride might be the smoke screen under which we were hiding some of our defects while we blamed others for them.”
Back to the Big Book on Step 3 “Sometimes they hurt us, seemingly without provocation, but we invariably find that at some point in the past we have made decisions based on self which later placed us in a position to be hurt.”
The Twelve Steps of A.A. initiate a total psychic change and a vast change in outlook, according to the Big Book. The word “drastic” is used. Thus I enter A.A. as person X with certain beliefs and attitudes and sensibilities – I do the Steps and become person Y – with new beliefs and attitudes and sensibilities (many of which contradict the old ones). Some of the changes will be “vast” and “drastic”.
So if we bring together an unchanged alcoholic X and a drastically-changed alcoholic Y, and alcoholic Y tells alcoholic X the truth as they see it (even if they try to do it in a courteous way), offense will sometimes be taken – surely?
It’s not like this is a new idea. A program without the capacity to offend, is one that is without the capacity to change. Or as Diogenes put it “Of what use is a philosopher who doesn’t hurt anybody’s feelings”?
In the same way that the concepts of newcomers being safe and newcomers being unoffended are sometimes confused, so are A.A. meetings and A.A. business meetings. The idea of free political debate in which people aren’t able to express policy opinions because they MAY upset or unsettle others present, is a contradiction.
The same House of Commons that actually drafted and voted on the safeguarding laws, is a chamber of controversy and debate. A democracy without the ability for impassioned and free debate is NOT A SAFE DEMOCRACY. It is a recipe for political control by a minority.
To keep A.A. safe, business meetings such as group consciences and intergroup and so forth must be able to withstand and welcome passionate debate. The idea that debate will never cause people to feel uncomfortable or even take offense, is childish. We in A.A. are trying to become grown-ups in the real world. Not remain childish alcoholics who live in a never-never land of “everybody getting on all the time”.
The above observations do not mean business meetings should be a free-for-all, nor does it mean newcomers should be allowed to be abused. But it recognises that A.A. exists in the real world. A world of sensitive ego-riven alcoholics. A world in which drastically changed individuals speak truth to desperately emotionally ill individuals.
Let’s be grown-ups in A.A. Protect without being childish. Debate without being afraid.
AK, RTR 2021
Appendix – other ways to offend newcomers:
Someone feels patronised because I share my experience about their problem.
Talking about God or a spiritual higher power, not knowing whether there is an atheist in the meeting.
Sharing my experience to try to help a newcomer, but the newcomer infers that’s what I’m doing, and feels put upon or patronised.
A visitor doesn’t like my home group having a free-for-all whoever-gets-in-first format.
A visitor doesn’t like my home group having a hands-up format.
Suggesting an agnostic read “We Agnostics” and they feel the chapter insults them.
Telling a newcomer what the Big Book says about alcoholism being a fatal illness.
Suggesting to a newcomer they’re powerless to stop drinking.
Quoting lines from the Big Book about putting A.A. ahead of family and business.
Telling someone who was late for setting up the meeting that they need to do better at their service for the sake of the group.
Asking a newcomer to keep the noise down when someone’s speaking (especially if the speaker is relatively new themselves).
Suggesting somebody do something they really don’t want to do, because it will help them stay sober.
Asking a newcomer personal questions about their emotions etc.
After a newcomer has asked you to show them how you stay sober (i.e. sponsor them), suggesting they: pray on knees, get honest about their part in things they thought they were a victim of, etc.
Quoting the part of the Big Book that calls a newcomer spiritually sick.
Quoting the Twelve and Twelve with lines like “almost the only scoffers at prayer are those who never tried it enough”.
(As the Big Book says “We could extend this list ad infinitum”)