There's a big AA group near me -- they're quite a presence on the local recovery scene. They have large, enthusiastically attended meetings, with their guru founder in attendance at many of them. He is, in many ways, the real deal, and I have heard him speak on several occasions over the past years, and been inspired by some much of what he said. (I used to joke that if your own meeting wasn't making rent you should invite him to speak one week and you'd have a surplus in the basket, as many of his group members often come to hear him speak.) I've been to several of their AA meetings and am often deeply divided in how I feel about them.
One notable characteristic of this group is that they have a dress code. An honest-to-God requirement that men wear suit jackets and ties when they speak at a meeting -- any meeting, not just their own. It used to also be that women were required to wear skirts, but rumor has it that's been relaxed a little bit -- I don't know exactly where they are with that in 2009, but the "sober ladies wear skirts" thing was absolutely how they did it for years -- well into the 21st Century.
Before I get too far down this road, I should pause for a moment and throw out there that although some of the AA literature uses the words "group" and "meeting" interchangeably they are not, strictly speaking, exactly the same thing. The most concise way of explaining the difference would be that a 12 Step meeting is bound/defined by the 12 Traditions, and a "Group," while usually working to incorporate the spirit of the 12 Traditions in how they operate, is technically not. (For example, an AA Meeting cannot operate a clubhouse, but a Group can.)
So this group I mentioned has a dress code. I'm not sure what word they use to describe this "policy" to themselves -- custom? rule? suggestion? -- but it's how they do it. I wouldn't go so far to say they are smug -- that's a pretty loaded term -- but I think it would be a fair characterization to suggest that they are extremely hierarchical, very (very) structured, and feel the way they "do" AA is the better way. Who am I to say otherwise? It works for them. It's not for me, but I don't have to make them wrong so that I feel right. (Today -- catch me when I'm a little less spiritually fit). I can even see that there's common sense at work in some of their customs. Getting dressed up can help people feel better about themselves, and it doesn't take a cultural anthropologist to observe that a group of people (as in "alcoholics") who tend to not feel "a part of" and struggle with isolationism and egotism will perhaps find comfort, identification and reinforcement by dressing in a similar fashion to the others around them. As I said, it's not for me, but I can see why it might work well for others.
A different group I've been to recently has a very strong focus on staying out of the "drunkalog" when sharing. And by "staying out of" I mean "not talking about at all." The intent, which this group states in a number of readings at the beginning of their meetings, is to keep the focus on recovery. An admirable intention, at first glance. I'm not especially comfortable with it though; my experience of people in meetings who talk solely about the mental and spiritual aspects of their Programs is that we can slide into a very cerebral, recovery-jargon based kind of sharing -- which to a newcomer may sound (potentially) a lot like a cult, thereby validating their worst judgments and fears before they've really had a chance to hear what AA might offer them.
Aside from the enormous entertainment value I sometimes find in hearing about people's drinking and using (for example recently I heard a young, bi-lingual Hispanic woman share that she drank so much in high school she flunked Spanish. God I love that -- that is my kind of drinkin'. Or the woman who had the brilliant idea to take the narcotic-laced pain patches prescribed to treat her dog's arthritis and smoke them to see if she could get high that way. The experiment was a disaster, but there is a part of me still that thinks, "Genius!" when I hear that), what made AA safe for me when I was brand new was the identification I felt -- and at first it was solely the fact that here were men and women who drank and used like I did. That initial identification with their drinking behavior opened my ears to the rest of what they had to say (and, I would argue, is the cornerstone of how the 12th Step works).
But I understand what this group is trying to do, and a concerted effort to focus on the recovery rather than the disease is certainly both admiral and logical, if, in my opinion, slightly misguided. I was a little uncomfortable with quite how much they needed to reinforce to each other that they had the "real" recovery -- but again, that's all about the psychology of group identity, not AA -- a smaller group within a larger one must make everyone else a bit "less" to reinforce to each other that they're a bit "more."
I have been to meetings and encountered groups with all kinds of customs -- all well intentioned: The "no swearing" groups, the groups that aren't too keen on the "... as you understand Him" part of the Steps, and have a significant emphasis on a more traditional, Christian-based god model. Groups that have rules about "no drug talk" or groups that wear their atheism like a proud banner, and won't allow any "god talk," or, most terrifying to me, personally, groups that encourage cross talk.
The 12 Traditions are to AA meetings what the 12 Steps are to the individual -- a recipe for how to deal with the many shades of gray life will throw at you, and not get sidetracked by ego, fear and alcoholism.
Tradition 4 states: Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or AA as a whole. Roughly translated this means, "Your meeting/group can do as you like -- so long as you don't violate any of the other Traditions -- but don't think you can make other groups do as you do, nor can you influence or represent all of AA."
In each of the groups I've mentioned here people are staying sober -- and though I worry, I have to trust that God will sort out which newcomer walks thru what door to find the group that has the best slant for them.
But I think it is important to note that what many of these groups are focused on could be classed as moral issues: The propriety of dress, offensive or inoffensive language, proper or improper subject matter.
Although the word "moral" appears in the 12 Steps, it does so in a very specific way and for a very clear purpose: Reviewing our own conduct, not dictating others'.
Alcoholism is a disease -- a three-fold disease, which is a condition still not completely, clearly understood -- but a disease nonetheless. It is not a moral issue. We are not bad people getting good, we are people with an illness who are taking our medicine -- it's just spiritual medicine, for the most part.
Morality may help people feel comfortable, or (and this is important) feel safe and welcome in whatever AA meeting they wind up in. It may give an individual who's had a hard time functioning in society at large a guide for how not to be in conflict with the world around them. There are many valuable things one can take from what is basically a kind of behavior modification coached in terms that have a particular "moral currency" in our culture.
BUT that is not AA. It's a part of the different groups of people in AA -- and as with any group, each thinks, secretly or not, that they're a little more "right" than everyone else -- but the 12 Steps and the 12 Traditions are both a set of clearly defined boundaries and a broad, all-inclusive road which allows for anyone who wants it -- anyone at all -- to find a solution to their alcoholism -- and it has nothing to do with what you wear or how you speak or if you sit up or slouch or chew gum or tobacco.
I think that while there is obvious value in trying not to offend or provoke -- the value is not in marrying AA to a quasi-moralistic value system and confusing where one starts and the other stops -- the value is in living comfortably in our own skins and being as available as humanly possible to carry AA's all-inclusive message to any alcoholic who may need it.
No group I've mentioned here is wrong -- I just think we all, in each of our groups -- no matter how loosely or formally they're defined, and what brand of morality (or anti-morality) we may have -- need to guard against believing we're extra right.