In my experience there are a number of common misunderstandings that arise around the Traditions. The following article is a discussion of my experience of these.
An important part of this Tradition is that at times we need to submit our will to the will of something larger that we are a part of – Bill refers to “the desires and ambitions of the individual being silenced when they could damage the group.” However a common confusion is that the unity of Tradition 1 means unanimity. When this Tradition was written Bill W was afraid that AA would split into two parts or perhaps crumble into even smaller bits. More than unanimity, the Unity of this Tradition calls for AA to remain as a unified whole – as one organisation. Tradition 1 does not say AA’s in a particular group or area should be unanimous in their opinions, get on blissfully, or not get angry with each other. In fact the Tradition doesn’t even call for groups or areas to remain as a unified whole. As long as they stay under the AA banner, the most important Unity is fulfilled. AA as a whole must remain unified, as one, under the name Alcoholics Anonymous, and within its evolved world service structure. This is something that can be perhaps taken for granted nowadays, but required much work and effort on the part of the old timers to set up. It does not require agreement and harmony, but simply being willing to work together under one name and service structure.
Tradition 2 is often misunderstood as meaning there are no leaders in AA, when in fact it says the very opposite. It says there are leaders, but that they cannot force anyone to do anything (whereas leaders in a church or club could say “do this or you can’t be a member”). These AA leaders are often people with great service or recovery experience – people who chair service committees or sponsor many members; whom Bill calls the “old timers”.
Tradition 2 is also sometimes mistakenly used to actually reduce peoples’ freedom in AA. An old timer is sometimes criticised for speaking their mind and of “controlling” a group. An old timer is not a group leader by their choice, but by the choice of those group members who choose to follow. If the group’s conscience is to follow that old timer then it is free to do so, and the old timer is free to share their experience and speak their opinions as much as they want.
Tradition 3 has a classic misunderstanding. There are non-alcoholics who say “I have a desire to stop drinking, so I can join AA!” Of course this is untrue, as a glance of the long form of Tradition 3 makes clear. Tradition 3 says only alcoholics can join AA. The real purpose of Tradition 3 is not to open up AA to non-alcoholics, but to open up AA to all alcoholics. Any alcoholic, no matter what his/her circumstances, can join.
A first misunderstanding with Tradition 5 is that a group has more than one purpose. In other words it may seem from this that a group has a “primary” purpose, and perhaps a “secondary” purpose, and so on. However the Tradition is saying a group has but one purpose, and is emphasising that using the word “primary”.
The second misunderstanding is what the “message” is. A group’s message is sharing how the practice of the 12 Steps leads to recovery. If a newcomer rambles drunkenly at a meeting, then they may “remind us how it was”, but it does not carry that message. If an old timer moans on self-piteously about their life to “get it off their chest” then it may “show that we’re still human and have problems like the newcomer”, but it does not carry the message. There are opportunities for both of the above (e.g. talking one to one with a sponsor or an AA buddy), but not during an AA meeting, if we are following the Tradition.
This Tradition is sometimes misunderstood as meaning that AA cannot publicise itself. In fact AA has a responsibility to publicise itself. The old timers went to great lengths to publicise AA and there is a 60 year Tradition of AA publicising itself. The attraction simply keeps that publicity of a humble type. That means we can still put up bill boards and have TV adverts and so forth. However the content of these adverts should not be sensational or promotional, it should be simple humble facts.
Together with Tradition 12 this Tradition is often thought to say that AA members should remain “anonymous” and not tell others they are members. This misconception greatly annoyed Dr Bob, who even went so far as to say that people that did that were breaking the Tradition. Tradition 11 only says we maintain public anonymity (i.e. in newspapers, TV or films). But we can tell as many people we want that we are members of AA.
As mentioned earlier, this Tradition is often thought to say that AA members should remain “anonymous” and not tell others they are members. But what Tradition 12 means when it says that “anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our Traditions”, is based on what Bill W said: “the spiritual substance of anonymity is sacrifice”. Each of the 12 Traditions requires us to sacrifice something for the good of AA. For example, Tradition 1 requires us to put the good of AA as a whole, before ourselves. In particular Tradition 12 reminds us that AA has no great figureheads (apart from the two founders, whose reputations cannot really be reduced now). Day in and Day out great prodigies of service are performed in AA, but we do not release articles to the press about these members, nor publicise our service leaders as “great men and women” carved in stones of remembrance. In other organisations, those who contribute a great deal are recognised internally and in the media – not so in AA.
Another misconception of this Tradition regards “principles before personalities” – the idea that disagreement (lack of unanimity) is a result of placing personalities before principles. This is really another misunderstanding relating to Tradition 1. When people in AA argue and get passionate, it does not mean that personalities are being placed before principles. Just because someone disagrees with something that I see as self-evident, does not mean that that person is putting personalities before principles. Just because I almost always disagree with a particular person on everything, does not mean we are placing personalities before principles. And just because normal human passions come up during discussion does not mean that there are “too many personalities” in the room. In fact I can even dislike someone in AA, and I am not placing personalities before principles as long as I do not let that dislike get in the way of my AA service. If anything, the phrase “principles before personalities” in AA debate, is to allow disagreement to take place. We can disagree as much as we want during a discussion, as long as the disagreement and passion are as a result of disagreement in principles, and as long as we can recognise this afterwards. In this way, people who disagree (and even dislike each other) in AA can continue to meet and serve together, thus promoting the unity of Tradition 1 without the need for unanimity.
AK, Road to Recovery Group, Plymouth