Nitpicking on AA Committees

You know the ones: just when a long tiring group conscience discussion is about to end they say something like “Surely that decision goes against Tradition/Concept X?” (replace X with your most confusing Concept or Tradition number); or during an already busy Intergroup/Region meeting they hold things up by saying “Doesn’t this go against the AA Service Manual, Section 7, Paragraph 4?” Rather than letting a Trusted Servant get on with their job, the so-called “Nit Pickers” quiz him about the details of his actions, and whether they fit in with Para 4, Subsection 5, item 1.7 etc. When everyone just wants to get on and discuss the next topic, or end the meeting and go home, the Nitpickers insist on extending debate over some seemingly tiny point of procedure. A chorus of groans or tuts follows, and everyone thinks “it’s those Nitpickers again”.

AA would be better off without people like this right? Wrong. To understand this we need to look at the psychology of alcoholics, and the nature of AA committees and service work, as well as what makes a democracy.

First of all, no one in AA likes to think they’re being told what to do. When they have AA service literature quoted at them it can be annoying. It’s almost like the person doing the quoting is telling them what to do. But this is not the case, it is the principles that are telling you what to do, not the personality. The personality may passionately believe in the principles and argue for them, but in the end it is the principles I should listen out for.

I have had a situation where I wanted to rush ahead with an AA service action, and a member of the service committee held me back and said he wanted to form a subcommittee to discuss it first. I got annoyed and started thinking the person was over-fearful and not concerned enough with action as opposed to deliberation. However in reality what was happening was he was “quoting” various principles from the Traditions and Concepts, such as “Well defined scope of authority” and “the Group Conscience” and “avoiding hasty decisions”. I had to swallow my pride, accepted the wisdom of the AA principles being “quoted” and didn’t hold it against the committee member himself.

The next thing to consider is that AA work is an avocation, it is done on top of our already-busy work and family lives. I read a Grapevine article recently that spoke about how one very short piece of well-known AA literature had taken 10 years to be produced. Committees, especially AA Committees are slow. They can take a long time to get anything done. This avoids mistakes. Regarding Bill W’s attempts to introduce the Conference and the Traditions: the groups and GSB were right to resist Bill’s attempts. This gave sufficient time for everyone to discuss and debate the issues. Similarly in governments of countries: many of the implementation and legislation processes are designed to make different parts of the government clash against each other and slow each other down. This reduces the chances of mistakes and disunity.

In a typical slow-moving AA committee meeting, there is far more to be discussed than can be discussed. Meetings are usually during an evening or at a weekend. I have sat in Group Steering Committee meetings on a Friday night, watching the clock approaching 11:30pm and hoping that no one would bring up any more business for discussion, so I could go home. I have also sat in Region meetings on a Sunday afternoon which I started driving to at 9:30am, and I’ve watched as the clock has passed 3:30pm, and wondering if I’ll have time to eat dinner before my home group that evening. I have felt the underlying tension in the slow-moving committees of other people feeling the same thing. If a so-called “NitPicker” speaks up at a time like this, you can almost feel the tension and annoyance of others in the committee. At times like this it is important for an AA committee to remember that it is the Chair who is responsible for time-keeping, not the committee. It can be very dangerous if a committee starts to tut and groan when so-called “Nitpickers” speak up during busy committee meetings. This will discourage people from speaking up at the committee. The dangers of this discouragement are obvious to any democratically-minded person.

It is worth going into the subject of democracy and speaking-up in a little more depth here. Democracy is sloooowwww. It always has been and it always will be. Dictatorship (by a person or a committee), now that’s fast. Dictators can get things decided instantly, just by saying so. The downside is that all dictators are human – they can make mistakes or get caught up in their defects of character. No organization or country wants to put itself at the risk of being massively affected by the whims and errors of a human being. The alternative to this is that many people contribute to the decision-making process. This obviously takes much longer. It will also lead to argument and debate. It will lead to frustration. How many times have I sat in an over-long debate at an AA committee and thought “Can’t they see? It’s obvious what the right thing to do is!” Of course, if I was the dictator of every AA committee I’d been on, AA would probably have collapsed in my part of the country years ago.

Being part of a democracy is being part of a sea of differing opinions. It’s about combining everyone’s opinions in an informed way to produce a decision. The easier part of this is accepting other people will have different opinions to me. The harder part is taking responsibility for stating my own opinions in front of others, no matter how unpopular I think it will make me. The AA right of appeal says that we actually have a responsibility to do this if we believe it is necessary. Unfortunately when this is done at a time when people are tired and want to go home, or when they are plain bored and want to get on to the stuff that interests them, it is often called “Nitpicking”!

Another thing so-called Nitpickers are often accused of is being mistrustful. They quiz service leaders about their past actions and intended future actions. Those annoyed by the so-called Nitpickers say things like “Look, these service leaders are obviously good AAs and have good intentions, do we have to waste time quizzing them on these unimportant details?” Well the first thing to note is that what may be unimportant to you could be very important to me. It is not up to you to decide what is important enough for me to ask. Secondly, good AA’s with good intentions have done untold damage to AA in the last 70 years or so. Bill W splashed his name across newspapers thus encouraging a rash of anonymity breaking in AA’s early days. For years, many groups worked in ways that were spiritually damaging to themselves and to AA, until the Traditions were published and absorbed. I have come across multiple situations where solid AA members are causing problems for their local PICPC committees because they do not understand the AA principles.

The point I’m trying to make is that AA is made up of two things: people and AA principles. Good hard-working people mistakenly using bad principles can actually do damage to AA. And good principles can only be applied when they are known by people. Hence it is sometimes necessary to push home issues in a way that is taken as overly-critical to those observing. Just because someone is a good man and hard-working and friendly doesn’t mean they understand all the AA principles.

I’ve been in a situation where after a Group Steering Committee meeting, a group member was not happy with the way things had gone in a voting procedure. I realized that there may have been a mistake, but at first I thought “O what the heck, our intentions were good, and it’s not a big deal.” But for this group member it was a big deal, and she didn’t care about my intentions, she wanted to know about the principles applied, and were they good AA. As I realized this, I tried to get more humble and make myself directly accountable to those I served. I answered her as honestly as I could, accepting that I may have made a mistake, and that I wasn’t “Mr. Perfect AA Service”. I told her I may have made a mistake, and I accepted that I would have to take the rap if I had. The situation resolved itself harmlessly and I learned more deeply about the AA principle of accountability.

The final point about so-called “Nitpicking” is that organizations and committees are resistant to change. “It’s worked in the past, so why change it now?” Well of course this goes in direct contradiction to Bill W’s ideas about the “vision” of leaders, and the dangers of “short-term good jeopardizing the long-term best”. People who try to change the way AA committees do things, to bring it in line with how they see the Traditions/Concepts, are often accused of “Nitpicking”. Basically changing something means the committee has to make the effort of taking responsibility for the change. This is definitely an effort, since such a responsibility needs to be taken seriously, and the ramifications considered. Committees know that once a change is in place it will probably stay there for a while. The other thing is that committees, like people, get into habits. And it is easier for a committee to follow its habits than to change them. It is important to remember that growth can only come through change.

I remember a committee member proposing that service officers such as myself sent our reports both to the committee and to another set of committees. This required significantly more effort for me, and seemed administratively inefficient at first. I internally resisted the idea for a moment. But then I saw that just because it was more effort for me, didn’t mean it was wrong. Once I’d opened my mind to the idea, it grew on me as being a good step in the right direction.

In conclusion there are four main reasons, in my experience, why some people in AA are called “Nitpickers”:
– People confusing having principles quoted at them with being told what to do
– Not wanting committee agendas to get too long, since AA is an avocation
– Not realizing that people in a democracy have a responsibility to speak out
– Being resistant to change

The important thing to remember about the so-called “Nitpickers” is that they have no real power. If they speak the truth and the group conscience is healthy then the principles they speak will win out. If they speak lies or inaccuracies, their principles will not win out. We have nothing to fear from them. But without these vocal people, AA may well have collapsed years ago. Bill W was considered by the GSB back then to be “Nitpicking” about starting a Conference. Before then Bill was considered by the groups to be “Nitpicking” about formalizing the Traditions. Bill could see the importance of certain principles more clearly than the GSB or the groups at certain times. And this is how democracy works, we all see the truth more clearly than others at some times, and they see it more clearly than us at other times. It is our responsibility in the God-given democracy of AA to speak up our truth when we believe we see it clearly.

AK, Road to Recovery Group Plymouth, September 2002