Hi. My name is Dave.
I am an uncivil-holic.
I don’t know where to begin. I didn’t want to become uncivil. It just kind of happened, I guess. I grew up in an uncivil family. My parents would stay up late at night, both uncivil as a skunk, and not feed us. We kids learned to fend for ourselves, but kids of uncivil parents often repeat the same pattern of abuse: lying to ourselves and others, always carrying that façade of civility, when really we were just waiting for the next opportunity to be mean. So naturally, I became a lawyer.
At first, I would be uncivil just when I was with friends or, you know, at a party where everyone was uncivil. But eventually, I found myself getting uncivil when I was home alone. Sometimes I would call in “sick” to the office, when I actually was so uncivil I couldn’t get out of bed. I even began hiding my incivility at work, sneaking insults, and mocking my colleagues when they couldn’t tell.
But I was lying to myself. I thought everything was alright, that all I needed was just a little confrontation now and then. In reality, I couldn’t go a day without getting totally uncivilized. See, when I was civil, I still felt this overwhelming craving. So I satisfied it in different ways thinking no one would catch on – making spurious arguments, writing rude e-mails, nitpicking discovery requests, or just being generally unfriendly. I needed to be uncivil all the time, the easy way out.
I once woke up and realized that I had been uncivil, on and off, for 47 straight days. No wonder my friends stopped talking to me. Even when I went to a bar association meeting, people looked the other way. Finally, I hit rock bottom. I was in an elevator and a terribly dressed lawyer got on. I needed to get uncivil so bad, and I couldn’t stop shaking. I woke up in an ambulance – I guess I passed out. At that moment, I gave up hope of ever becoming civil again.
I blamed everything and everyone I knew for my incivility: lousy clients, judges who ruled against me, Colts playoff games, everything except me. Then, like a miracle, an old judge friend, who had avoided me for years, called me. He knew I was hopelessly uncivil, and he appointed me as a judge pro tem for a day. He must have thought it might help change me. I was not sure I could pull this off. I had not been civil for a whole day since high school. But something inside me said, “This is your last chance.”
It was a difficult day. I was weak and uncertain. But late in the morning, two lawyers were arguing in open court about where to conduct a deposition, whether their phone calls had been returned, and threatening to counterclaim. Suddenly, I saw myself in them, and realized my incivility had made me a different person. I was lost and needed to get back. I knew I couldn’t live like this anymore, and I became committed to be my real self again, to stop putting on a mask, to remain civil. At that moment I realized I was powerless over incivility, and surrendered to a power greater than myself – the law. Now I needed to share my story with uncivil lawyers every day. So naturally, I became a judge.
As a judge, I have been able to remain civil because the system cannot function otherwise. The fate of people who aren’t even lawyers depends on how I manage myself – a responsibility that judges share and fulfill. Indeed, the community at large looks to judges to be the foundation of civil society – otherwise public confidence would erode and common decency might begin to disappear. I used to think civility was a weakness, but I now realize that incivility is the weakness. As I looked around, I began to see civility taking root around the world:
• Marion Superior Court (Indianapolis) issued civility guidelines for family law cases
• North Carolina State Bar Association started an “Ask Atticus” feature in its newsletter to answer anonymous civility questions
• Canada’s Advocate’s Society promulgated 16 civility principles.
I decided I didn’t want to be like the people once described by the philosopher Montaigne, “uncivil by too much civility, and tiresome in their courtesy.” I decided that real civility means not just being polite, but having real respect for my colleagues.
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Note to Reader: If you read this and think you might have a problem, chances are you do. Please do not let your fear or denial get in the way of your recovery.•
Judge David J. Dreyer has been a judge for the Marion Superior Court since 1997. He is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and Notre Dame Law School, and he is a former board member of the Indiana Judges Association. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s.