In a recent column, Bernard Hammelburg highlighted the word “vitriol” and its increasing use of it in politics. According to the dictionary, this means;  bitterly abusive feelings or expressions.  Hammelburg, throughout his career as a journalist, reported from many of the world’s conflict hot spots. I appreciate his level of detail from past events and his awareness of different perspectives. The nature of his profession requires him to be like that. I just wish we could have the same breadth of context and richness of detail in the present and towards the future.

We’re all part of systems that have their own characteristics, be it politics, business, organisations, our neighbourhood, family and friends.  And with the help of the internet, we have scaled our systems to a global level.

This is not without its challenges. Values, truths and facts get mingled easily. Despite all the fact-checking we do, it doesn’t bring us closer together. On the contrary. Our values seem to be dividing us more rather than complementing each other.

Damon Centola, a researcher and behavioural scientist from Pennsylvania University, makes a distinction between simple- and complex contagion when it comes to adopting change. Addressing existing ideals and belief systems is a simple message. This is the realm of influencers and populists. Yes, in this example they are remarkably similar.  Recognising an aspiration, past experience or a (collective-)trauma activates oxytocin, the hormone that is released when you feel a connection and belonging to a group.  That is the strength of these messages. Some politicians frame these by addressing fears of people e.g. socialism, communism, religious persecution, racial discrimination, WOII, etc. They support, and reinforce, segregation of groups and communities. It also shields us from new possibilities of which there are so many, the unknown-unknowns.

We long for the truth, yet it means something different to each of us. No matter how much fact-checking we do, it is so difficult to change our minds and is probably dividing us even more.  

Consider this; Do you consider truth to be a position, a rock-solid statement of facts, or would you be prepared to consider it a process of exploration and discovery? 

Would you say truth is a zero-sum game, there can only be one. Or would it be possible that truth is more fluid and it depends on your perspective and context i.e. positive-sum? 

As an example; What is your view on the cancel-culture, the removal of statues, street names and other artefacts of people that had a significant, positive or negative, impact at some point in the past? History is a moving target. There are many different perspectives each time something happens when it is recognised/rewarded and later during moments of reflection rejected.  Again, without judgement, our framing of truth may influence how we view others with a different opinion.

Therefore our values are an important part of the dialogue and might be a pitfall in the way we work together. Getting positive reinforcement of our values is easy and safe, hence polarisation is a strong attractor.  . When we are not able to consider the positive and negative effects of opposing values, discussions will escalate and we will not come to a lasting resolution. Barry Johnson’s model on Polarity Mapping is a great approach to embracing opposing values without losing your own. These times, whether in politics or not, have so many ready-made conflictual subjects that even newspapers give advice on how to have dinner with family and friends without getting into trouble.

And in a Dutch study, 59% of 31.000 respondents report having heated discussions with family and friends on vaccination, with 15% ending in an actual row/fight.

I’m wondering, why is it possible to have a truce around Christmas and then continue with our usual business soon after? What are the values added in that period that make it possible?  “Why don’t you give your love, it’s Christmas” is a line in Wizzard’s 1973 song “Well I wish it could be Christmas every day”. 

To end with a message of hope: Don’t be fooled by all these concerning messages.  In complex phenomena, there is always an undercurrent of good things happening. There are organisations and communities picking up new ways of working e.g. (internet-)technologies for value exchange that enable other forms of collaboration.  In complex contagions, something may stay under the radar for a while. However, if you’re willing to see it, you’ll recognise that it is rapidly gaining significance.

One of the opposite definitions of “vitriol” is love. It is through love, as a state of human being, that we can bridge our differences and follow a path towards a harmonious outcome of our discussions whether it is in politics, business, organisations, communities or with your family and friends.  

Please connect with us if you like to explore practical ways to unleash it.

Some of the links below are in Dutch. Please use your favourite translation service if you want to know more.
BNR, Bernard Hammelburg column:
Pennsylvania University, Damon Centola, Behavioural Science:
The Stoa website:
The Stoa video channel, Barry Johnson, Polarity Mapping:
De Limburger newspaper, advice on avoiding conflict:
BNR, Technology podcast on value exchange crypto developments:
Een Vandaag, study on conflicts: