Source: Lake Geneva Regional News

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Advice for contrarians

by John Halverson

May 02, 2013

An open letter to the contrarians of Lake Geneva:

You know who you are. So does everyone else. There's no need for a roll call.

A few months ago I wrote a column about the need for contrarians—people who challenge the status quo.

People like you.

Every council or board needs at least one, I said.

There are wrongs in any community. There are things that need closer examination. Boards and editors can be lulled to sleep without someone telling the other side of the story.

You're that someone.

We need you to keep us awake.

We need you to be community watchdogs.

But you'll never get a proper hearing until you examine your methods.

Step back from your self-righteousness for a moment and look at yourself as many others do.

A good example to examine is the recent hubbub over the Dennis Lyon campaign flier.

You feel it was intentionally designed to mislead voters, to imply that the fire department supported him in his campaign to be fourth ward alderman.

I grant you the flier is confusing, but what do you think you'll accomplish by making it a criminal case?

Do you think you'll overturn the election? You know that won't happen.

Tarnish the image of Dennis Lyon?

And what would that accomplish?

Any chance of him listening to you objectively just got more remote.

You're just as likely to gain enemies — something you have enough of — because you're picking on an issue that's far from clear-cut and a tangential concern from the real challenges this city faces.

And be honest now, is there any chance you're wrong? Can't you look at that flier and see that maybe it wasn't intentionally misleading?

Maybe if you expressed a small amount of doubt occasionally, you'd get people to give you a fair hearing.

Thinking you're right isn't enough unless your goal is to be martyrs.

Being effective requires a different skill set.

Accept that people have a right to disagree with you without thinking they're mortal enemies or attributing everything they do to some sort of conspiracy.

Parsing the words of others to find a flaw or demonizing those who might otherwise listen to you isn't a great way to win election or forward a cause.

Here it gets personal.

A few weeks ago I wrote that I respected Lyons' opponent—your favored candidate.

I said she may have lost votes because she was associated with the "devisive" council of a few years ago — something I can't imagine anyone disagreeing with.

And I also said: "But that all minimizes the fact that Fesenmaier was also a conscientious and studious member of the council and a ferocious advocate for what she believed."

Several of the members of the contrarian club interpreted that as an insult, claiming I had called her "devisive."

One said I used "connotative and denotative meanings as a subtle way to influence people with image association."


It all reminded me of "opposite day" — a game my kids played when they were young.

For the last time: I meant it as a compliment.

One of your breathern also warned us against allowing my opinions to slide into the news columns. Considering it was a compliment, you should be in for a flurry of good coverage.

But we're really much more insidious than that.

We meet every Monday to plot against you. On Tuesdays, I get my payoff from city hall.

Actually, I have a lot more on my to-do list than that.

Most days, I don't give you or city hall a second thought.

Games aside, as long as I'm editor and Chris Schultz covers city hall, you'll get a fair coverage. And so will those you disagree with.

One of your favorite targets is Bill Chesen. I agree that he abused his bully pulpit when he was mayor. Kicking some of you off the city council was unfair and dumb.

But I also recall overhearing Chesen congratulating one of those ousted city council members for the work he did on a special project. I can't remember the specifics, but I thought "well, that shows some class." He wasn't doing it for show. He was doing it because, at least in that case, he separated the good in others from what he disagreed with.

There are two lessons you could learn from Chesen.

Don't let your emotions push you into taking counterproductive actions.

And give those you disagree with a bit of credit from time to time. It doesn't have to be disingenuous. Everyone does something right occasionally.

The current city council isn't perfect. It could have gone a long way in healing wounds had it paid for legal fees incurred by your removal from the council. That would have been the right thing to do.

But this council has also done a lot of good for this city, and without the drama of the past.

Being in the arena, trying to balance conflicting needs and wants, is a difficult job with imperfect results. If you continue to make it a thankless job, no one will want it.

Finally, let go of the past.

I'll accept blame for bringing it up again even though that wasn't my intent. Your perspective on the past is laid out in the accompanying letter written by one of your own.

So now that we have that out of the way, let's all turn around and face the future with fresh eyes. You argue that the past informs the future, but most people are sick of hearing about it.

Remember: You're not trying to win the hearts and minds of those who agree with you. You're trying to educate those who will give you another chance.

And if you want the public to give you another chance shouldn't you give Dennis Lyon one, too?

Am I painting you with too broad a brush? Perhaps. I know you're all individuals. But isn't that what you do with others? When someone disagrees with you, they're automatically part of some deep, dark conspiracy.

It's true, some people are against you because they'll never agree with you. Some are against you because they have a vested interest in the status quo.

But there are many people who might listen if you presented things differently, didn't make mountains out of molehills and acknowledged a wee bit of self-doubt on occasion.

Since you interpret compliments as criticisms, perhaps you'll view this criticism as a compliment.

That's not my intent.

But it's not meant as a frontal assault on your dignity, your resolve or what you believe in either.

Take my comments as well-intentioned advice on how you can be constructive critics.

You can take it or leave it.


John Halverson

Editor/General Manager

Lake Geneva Regional News