With Facemasks Politicized, Alcoholics Anonymous Faces a Conundrum
Due to rules discouraging political discussion, AA members can't discuss a wide-ranging fear: contracting COVID-19 from maskless science deniers. For a program requiring clear-eyed honesty, that's a very bad thing.
Due to rules discouraging political discussion, AA members can’t discuss a wide-ranging fear: contracting COVID-19 from maskless science deniers. For a program requiring clear-eyed honesty, that’s a very bad thing.
Gravity exists whether or not Donald Trump questions its legitimacy on Twitter, triggering a right-wing media assault on the Radical Left theory of “what goes up must come down.” Despite any attempt to politicize it, gravity is a fact as sure as water flows downhill or a dropped stone plummets to the ground.
Masks protect people from COVID-19, a virus whose combined contagiousness and lethality have caused the most devastating pandemic in a century. Expert simulations have shown that if 80 percent of the population wore masks, infection rates would plunge by more than 90 percent; a study published by the World Health Organization on June 1 aligns with these findings. Most recently, amid soaring coronavirus cases in mid-July, Centers for Disease Control Director Robert Redfield wrote a piece with the plain-as-day title “Universal Masking: The Time Is Now.”
By guarding both wearers and those around them from potentially pathogen-rich respiratory droplets, masks steeply mitigate the risk of transmitting a deadly virus that has infected nearly five million Americans and killed more than 150,000. That’s a fact, as proven and indisputable as gravity, and attempts to politicize this fact make it no less true.
So why, then, can’t I utter this fact in a place where I’ve come to value and benefit from honest, open dialogue?
Why can’t I declare this fact in a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous?
Much has been made about the pandemic’s impact on AA and other 12-step programs. Typically, these accounts discuss the obvious drawbacks of social distancing: the clunky awkwardness of meetings held online instead of in-person, and isolation’s erosion of the motivation and connectedness addicts and alcoholics feed upon to stay clean and sober.
However, as businesses reopen and society emerges from lockdown, another COVID-related issue has adversely affected AA. And unfortunately, one of the organization’s well-intending, decades-old principles has allowed this fresh wound to fester.
To explain: Alcoholics Anonymous and similar 12-step programs are, understandably, staunchly apolitical. AA’s Preamble, read aloud at the inception of most meetings, states that “AA is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization or institution; does not wish to engage in any controversy, neither endorses nor opposes any causes.”
This strict neutrality on outside matters has allowed AA to focus on its primary purpose: helping suffering alcoholics achieve and maintain sobriety. Since quitting drinking in 2011, AA’s life-saving single-mindedness has let me attend meetings with the “first things first” goal of furthering my recovery, recognizing that blessings accrued in sobriety would likely vanish should I return to alcohol.
AA’s appropriate aversion to politics, then, is reinforced by success. It has served as a sturdy guardrail against outside influences, and played a sizable role in AA becoming the most proficient and prolific recovery program in history.
And despite the creeping politicism of facts – the proven yet still-divisive issue of climate change is a prime example – no partisan dispute has been significant enough to put a noticeable chink in AA’s apolitical armor. Not even a fact-averse, race-baiting, violence-inciting president could do that.
It has taken a combination of the worst pandemic in a century and the worst president in US history to profoundly penetrate AA’s apolitical bubble. That is as much a credit to AA’s effectiveness – the program works; I am living proof – as it is an indictment of any political figures or mask-refusing, virus-spreading fools fueling the contagion.
Donald Trump, and the conservative media outlets that aid and abet him, have successfully convinced a significant set of Americans that a life-saving, science-backed fact – that masks are vital in the fight against COVID-19 – is instead a political issue. They have turned a plain piece of health-preserving fabric into the most hot-button symbol of a culture war, citing “personal freedom” as an excuse to infect and possibly kill others in the name of self-determination.
AA is a part of society. Its meetings invariably include the substantial minority of people who think mask wearing is partisan subjectivity rather than common sense objectivity. They have been hoodwinked by an amoral president and agenda-driven, irresponsible conservative media, and I truly feel bad for them.
That said, their ignorance has placed a pall over AA, the likes of which I’ve never experienced.
Folks with long-term recovery, like me, are typically in no immediate danger of relapse. Rather, we continue to attend AA because the same program we used to arrest alcoholism also works to diminish the emotional issues – anger, fear, selfishness, envy – that drove our drinking in the first place. We came for our drinking, and stay for our thinking.
AA is most effective – for recovery veterans and newcomers alike – when meetings are rooted in honesty. I need to be able to discuss the challenges I’ve been facing in the real world, so that others can help me apply AA principles in all my affairs – a pivotal part of AA’s 12th Step.
Here’s the rub: as people emerge from lockdown, the most prominent challenges in my life – and, I’m sure, the lives of many others, AA members or not – involve the legions of maskless morons content to sacrifice my personal safety for their cherished personal freedom.
In the age of COVID-19, the obstacle causing me the most fear, anxiety and stress isn’t emotional but rather existential. I’m scared for my life, and the lives of my loved ones. And when I can’t express that in an AA meeting for fear of violating the “no politics” rule, it significantly diminishes the program’s effectiveness.
It is a failure of society that we allow facts to be arbitrarily hijacked and fractured by politicians. These days, that generally means anything Donald Trump wants to turn into a wedge issue.
But it is a failure of AA that it has allowed a straightforward health issue, mask wearing, to become a topic non grata due to this dangerous, disingenuous politicization. It is an act of communal cowardice playing out in nearly every meeting I’ve attended since the pandemic’s inception, and has led me to significantly limit my participation.
In doing so, AA is setting a terrible precedent. It is essentially giving members the equivalent of a self-declared trigger-warning – a means of shutting down honest, fact-based discussion on the basis that it might be considered political. This is a slippery slope to something an honesty-driven recovery program must avoid at all costs: phoniness. And phoniness by exclusion – the refusal to acknowledge an inconvenient truth, one that has swelled into an elephant in AA’s COVID-caused cyber-rooms – is phoniness nonetheless.
The result has dissuaded reality-residing individuals like myself from expressing our most pressing, protracted concern – contracting coronavirus through the irresponsibility of others – for fear of self-appointed politics police crying foul. I find myself walking on eggshells in an environment I’ve long considered an enclave of honesty, and therefore of healing.
I got sober so I can live in the real world, not deny reality for the sake of preserving someone’s right to be dangerously, irresponsibly wrong about matters of life and death. When one of the most important facts in recent history – masks save lives – isn’t welcome in AA, many of its members, myself included, don’t feel welcome either.