Embracing the Tenth Tradition

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The Tenth Tradition suggests that AA and NA avoid becoming involved in controversial issues. (nito/Shutterstock)

The Tenth Tradition suggests that AA and NA avoid becoming involved in controversial issues. (nito/Shutterstock)

Many of the Twelve Traditions require a bit of metaphor in order to apply them in our everyday lives. This is because, unlike the Twelve Steps, the Twelve Traditions pertain more to AA and NA groups than to the individuals who comprise their membership. But some of the Twelve Traditions, such as Tradition One, can easily be applied to our lives and the ways in which we treat others. Tradition Ten is another example of such a tradition. And there are some applications of the Tenth Tradition that, while arguably non-essential for our sobriety, will lead us toward a much happier manner of living.

The Tenth Tradition, much like the other eleven that accompany it, is not technically considered a requirement. In this respect, the Twelve Traditions and the Twelve Steps are precisely alike. While many recovering addicts and alcoholics stand by them and consider them necessary, they are but mere suggestions. Nobody can force us to apply them in our daily lives if we do not wish to do so. But in the case of Tradition Ten, we would strongly suggest that you listen. Because while it may be most important for the groups, you may find that it improves your own personal life as well.

We’ll get into the specifics of the Tenth Tradition below. As always, we’ll begin by explaining Tradition Ten as written in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, also known as the 12&12. Then, we’ll discuss a few possible interpretations of this tradition. Finally, we’ll discuss how you can apply these interpretations to your personal recovery. Be warned ahead of time that the Tenth Tradition sounds simple, but may test us at times. True practice will require us to let go of a very specific character defect with which almost everyone struggles at one point or another: pride.

What Is Tradition Ten?

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The 12&12 states the Tenth Tradition as follows:

“Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the A.A. name ought never be drawn into public controversy.”

This means that you’ll never see AA as an organization comment on political issues. The organization won’t take a stance on religion, either. Even though AA might promote abstinence as the most effective form of recovery, the organization would never speak out in support of bringing back prohibition. Nor does NA make public statements concerning drug laws.

Tradition Ten doesn’t promote this silence as a way of saying that we shouldn’t care about these issues. But no fight, even one in which we believe quite deeply, is worth potential harm to the organization as a whole. And if the public sees AA and NA as outspoken organizations, they might be distracted from the primary purpose of such groups. This hurts not only the groups but also the individuals who refuse to seek help out of political bias. If groups observe the Tenth Tradition and simply don’t say anything to cause such bias, they avoid the issue altogether.

In many ways, the Tenth Tradition extends into our need for anonymity in the program. Let’s say a former heroin addict goes to NA and becomes sober. Now, let’s say this former heroin addict also happens to be a famous writer. In the past, they’ve taken hard stances on many political issues. They have numerous followers who look to them with admiration. But many others look at them with disdain. After a bit of time in sobriety, this writer decides to endorse NA as the program that helped him get on the right track. The writer’s fans may look positively at NA, but what about this writer’s critics? They might see NA as a group of people who hold controversial views, and this might warp their view of the program.

To be fair, the above hypothetical is a bit extreme. Most people would be able to separate the writer’s personal views from those of NA. But many would not. Therefore, while the Tenth Tradition dictates that the groups themselves should not take opinions on controversial issues, no one acting as a spokesperson for AA should take such views either. In this way, one might say that Tradition Ten and Tradition Eleven overlap at times. But there still might be disagreements regarding which issues AA and NA should avoid.

Multiple Interpretations

We should consider the effect our words may have before simply blurting out our controversial opinions to anyone within earshot. (racorn/Shutterstock)

We should consider the effect our words may have before simply blurting out our controversial opinions to anyone within earshot. (racorn/Shutterstock)

One issue on which some disagree is whether or not the Tenth Tradition applies to AA and NA members individually. In other words, should those who don’t speak for the groups still avoid these issues? According to one old-timer quoted in the 12&12, perhaps this should be the case:

“Practically never have I heard a heated religious, political, or reform argument among A.A. members. So long as we don’t argue these matters privately, it’s a cinch we never shall publicly.”

This makes a bit of natural sense. But how does this suggestion fare in the real world?

Depending upon the 12 step recovery program meetings you attend, you’ll likely hear a bit of political or religious discourse. Not necessarily during the meeting—although some people do slip these things into their shares—but almost definitely either before or after the meeting. These are, after all, things that people care about quite deeply. Sometimes, the conversations will be civil. At other times, they may turn into heated arguments. Many members will find this troubling, although others might not care as much. They’ll figure that each party knew what they were getting themselves into when the conversation began.

The primary problem with this justification is that it disregards the group as a whole. We might figure these arguments are okay because we know how to tune them out. But what about the newcomer, who is currently looking for little more than a safe place to come and talk about their substance abuse problem? To them, these arguments give the groups an appearance of instability. When they see a group’s members self-righteously taking up arms against one another over deeply held beliefs, they might not feel so comfortable talking about their history of drinking or drug abuse. Because in their mind, this group is simply a place where you go to argue and get berated.

This sort of problem fortunately occurs less often than not. Nonetheless, AA and NA groups shouldn’t be too comfortable with the idea that their own actions might cause a fellow sufferer to walk out the doors and never come back. These days, everyone criticizes the idea of giving people a “safe space” to avoid controversy. But isn’t that precisely what groups such as AA and NA are supposed to be? A safe space where we can share our inner selves without fear of rebuke? If the Tenth Tradition can uphold that safety for the sake of the newcomers, then it is for the sake of the newcomers that we must uphold the Tenth Tradition. For their sake, we cannot let excessive pride in our own beliefs allow us to create a hostile environment. The question is merely how to achieve this without cutting politics and religion from our lives altogether.

Following the Tenth Tradition

On the whole, it isn’t that difficult to steer clear of controversy and simply enjoy some pleasant conversations with our fellows. (Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock)

On the whole, it isn’t that difficult to steer clear of controversy and simply enjoy some pleasant conversations with our fellows. (Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock)

The 12&12 tells the story of the Washingtonian Society. Based in Baltimore, the Washingtonians were a very early group of alcoholics who tried to help each other through the power of fellowship. But given the climate of their time, they argued strongly on issues such as temperance and abolition. These arguments became their downfall. While AA’s leaders fight each other on such subjects, they harm their ability to work well with one another. For the sake of the groups, anyone seeking a service commitment must learn to bite their tongue on such issues when attending business meetings or other obligations.

Understandably, it’s hard to see how we can avoid arguing with anyone ever again. But the Tenth Tradition doesn’t require this. As written in the 12&12:

“Maybe this sounds as though the alcoholics in A.A. had suddenly gone peaceable, and become one great big happy family. Of course, this isn’t so at all. Human beings that we are, we squabble. Before we leveled off a bit, A.A. looked more like one prodigious squabble than anything else, at least on the surface.”

Arguments happen. The Tenth Tradition cannot prevent this. But the key here is to avoid controversial issues, things that might distract from the purpose of recovery. If we can at least focus on simply helping others achieve sobriety, our arguments will be much more respectful. And even then, we should do our best to keep them limited.

As for that matter of arguing before and after meetings, the 12&12 says very little. This is why AA and NA members are left to interpret the matter on their own. It might be suggested that a bit of lively debate can be good for a person now and then, as long as it remains civil. But we must be careful regarding when and where we choose to enter such debates. As suggested earlier, we might avoid doing it in front of the newcomers. This means that we should only really approach controversial issues when speaking to someone we know, in a group where we can tell who is new and who is not. Otherwise, save it for another time.

The Tenth Tradition might speak to recovery groups, but it really applies to our lives in general. When we argue needlessly, we run the risk of developing an emotional disturbance that might otherwise be easily avoided. There’s nothing wrong with forming an opinion on controversial issues. Even voicing that opinion—in the appropriate forum—is okay from time to time. But don’t get too caught up in arguing for the sake of arguing. It’s not good for your sobriety, and might even damage your social life as a whole. Politics and religion are important—but there are always other things to discuss.

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