Every AA Member Has Alternative Steps-It’s Inevitable.

By Stephen S. and Justin M. 

Everyone has developed an alternative version of the steps in their mind. Why is the word “god” still on the steps and traditions banner? Surely, we should be able to recognize that it is no longer necessary. Surely it can be replaced with “higher power”.

You may be surprised, but I am going to say that it needs to be kept, at least in traditional meetings.

At face value, the writing “god as we understand him” allows us to interpret the “god” word to be anything that I want. The steps invite, almost demand, that we interpret them. We have to come to an understanding of god “as we understand him”.

It may be a bug in the original wording. The wording indicates that I have to do work to come to understand a god of my own understanding.

Or it might be a feature. A feature that Bill was convinced to put in, to “widen the gateway” by atheists who were among the first members of AA. (This and the previous paragraph are brilliant!)

Importantly, there is a concept within Semiotics that unalienably makes everyone to interpret “god as we understand him”.

Words have usages, they do not have fixed meanings. Some words have multiple usages. Usages change over time.

Semiotics uses two terms to describe how words and their usages are transmitted in a message exchange. The terms are encoding and decoding.

Encoding is the process of creating a message for transmission by an addresser to an addressee.

Decoding is the process of interpreting a message sent by an addresser to an addressee.

All communication depends on the use of codes. When the message is received, the addressee is not passive, as decoding is more than simply recognizing the content of the message. Over time, individuals develop a cognitive framework of codes which will recall the denotative meaning and suggest possible connotative meanings for each signifier.

The actual meaning for each message is context-dependent: the codified relations between the signifiers in the particular context must be interpreted according to the syntactic, semantic and social codes so that the most appropriate meaning is attributed.

Some message exchanges are open to dialogue, where usages can be negotiated and refined. Other message exchanges are closed – i.e.: there are no exchanges but a one-way phenomenon.

The Steps, whether in the Big Book or on the banners, are a one-way phenomenon. Umberto Eco calls such phenomena “closed texts”. But he does recognize that there exist more open texts which may have latent usages or be encoded in a way that encourages the possibility of alternative interpretations

We are all forced (forced by whom?) to decode closed texts for ourselves. We may have an exchange about that decoding with other members or sponsors. But, then, we are comparing their decoding to our own. We are not in an exchange with those that originally wrote them. Such an exchange is impossible – the authors are dead. This has left us with a situation in which everyone has developed an alternative version of the steps in their mind.

Umberto Eco suggests that there will be a dominant decoding of closed texts and possibly several minority decodings. This is the case in AA, with traditional meetings generally encouraging members to adopt the dominant decoding of the Big Book and other AA literature.

However, given the academic understanding above, it is most reasonable that anyone, myself included, would have an alternative decoding of The Steps. All other members have an alternative decoding of The Steps. Some may be more or less in line with the dominant decoding. Others may diverge wildly. The key point is that the member’s decoding will inform how they understand the steps – they form a set of alternative steps that work for them.

In that sense, there may exist as many sets of alternative steps as there are AA members. Every member will have a set of alternative steps. However, given the third tradition, I can’t force others to do my alternative steps. And vice versa.

AA has an obligation to recognize decoding and not stand in the way of members to freely come to an understanding of god “as we understand him”.

To paraphrase MLK, all we say to AA is, be true to what you said on paper. All AA members seek a relationship with sobriety. Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead.

MLK was killed by an assassin’s bullet. But his dream was not killed with that bullet. We all benefited from his dream.

About the Authors

Justin and Stephen are alcoholics living in Australia. They have both been sober for approximately two years. They are trying to spread the message of secular AA and host a podcast called “We Agnostics.”

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  1. John M. October 18, 2018 at 7:35 pm - Reply

    Dear Justin and Stephen,

    Thank you for your thought provoking essay about an interpretative process that binds us to that which we take seriously (or not). Your essay suggests that there’s a power greater than ourselves at work here, and “god” is only one of its codes. 

    The essay reminded me about how that power played itself out a number of years ago when a very popular and well travelled conference speaker spoke at a Toronto Roundup in 2011. After dinner he told his story and spoke about the meaning of the Steps in his life. When he came to Step 2 he said the following (and here I quote verbatim from the CD I purchased):

    I guess what the Second Step means — much to my surprise, the Steps all came to mean what they said. To this day I cannot sit through a weekend where people are interpreting the Steps, or even a meeting, for goddamnit they’re simple. They mean what they say. And the Second Step means you have to come to believe that there is some power here that will make it unnecessary for you to drink alcohol. That’s all! No big deal!

    The speaker may be right that some power or combination of powers work to make it unnecessary to drink but he seems to be oblivious to another power that we are talking about in today’s essay. He tells us that he cannot sit through a weekend or meeting where people are interpreting the Steps (for “the Steps mean what they say”) but he then engages in the very act of interpreting the Steps which he indicates he disdains — and he remains unaware that he has done so! Simply, he seems ignorant of the power that language has to bind us to interpretation — and “it’s inevitable,” as Justin and Stephen write.

    One cannot not interpret the Steps (or anything else). As soon as a speaker (or writer) begins by saying what a statement means, they are eo ipso engaging in interpretation unless they quote verbatim from the text.

    As you tell us, Justin and Stephen, one cannot not decode the text: “We are all forced (forced by whom?) to decode closed texts for ourselves.” 

    Heck, we are even forced to interpret god. BUT we are doing for ourselves what not even god can do for us!

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