Substantial unanimity helps the majority slow down and hear the voice of the minority opinion. Sometimes the voice of a loving God is trying to speak through others.
A judge may require people with an alcohol-related court conviction to attend AA meetings. These people come with court papers for us at AA to sign. The signed papers are intended to prove to the court system that the person attended a meeting. The secretary of my home group routinely signed them.
At our monthly business meeting, one of our members, Charles, said he would like the group to stop signing court papers. “I know this might be opening a can of worms,” he said, “but I think sometimes there are worms that need to see the light of day. I feel pretty strongly about it, but before we change a long-established policy let’s make sure there is substantial unanimity.”
He had a written copy of his motion. He read it aloud and then he handed it to the secretary. “I move that: Provided there is at least a two-thirds vote in favor at our next business meeting, our group will stop signing court papers,” he said. The motion was seconded, and it was taken up under old business the next month.
Many members of the group came to the next business meeting. Some of these were people who usually didn’t attend. One spoke passionately about how a “nudge from the judge” was just what it took for him to get sober. Another member said that he hated being “sentenced to AA,” but years later when his drinking got bad enough, he came back to AA and stayed sober. There was quite a bit of discussion about the Twelve Traditions and people on both sides quoted from the Big Book.
Then Charles said, “I am affected by hearing what you say. I understand that many people have been helped. I just wonder about the ones who are not around to speak for themselves. We don’t hear from the people who were so disgusted that they never came back. How many of them didn’t live long enough to come back?”
The motion got a majority but not the two-thirds vote required. After the business meeting, several members asked Charles how he felt about losing. He said, “Group unity won today. That’s a good business meeting in my book.”
I started to see something that day. I understand better why we should always try to reach substantial unanimity. I used to think that we did this in AA so there would be fewer unhappy people on the losing side. I realize now that it actually suggests a much deeper spiritual principle. Working to get substantial unanimity helps the majority slow down and hear the voice of the minority opinion. Sometimes the voice of a loving God of our understanding is trying to speak through others—if we’ll only listen. Even when the majority has a good case, it’s important to remember that our common welfare very much depends on AA unity.
When people are unhappy, they can “vote with their feet” and join a different group. If the minority feels strongly about an issue, it may be a good idea to postpone passing the motion for the time being. The majority may be able to persuade them at a later time. Sometimes, the best answer might be a blend of ideas from both sides.
The motion Charles made didn’t pass, but he won new respect for the Concepts and the principle of substantial unanimity, and the group was stronger as a result. In the long run, a strong home group will do more to help the newcomer than the results of any one vote.