Belgium has a peculiar colonial history. By the time the country became independent in 1830, most other European powers already had colonies. From 1840 to 1850, Belgium’s first king, Leopold I, made several unfruitful attempts to acquire overseas territories. A deal to colonize the Kingdom of Hawaii fell apart (Hunnewell 1869), and an effort to settle in Guatemala did not last long (Feys 2003), but these endeavors sparked the colonial enthusiasm in his son, King Leopold II. Because the Belgian government viewed colonial expansion as economically and politically risky, Leopold II pursued his ambitions without the support of the government after he was crowned (Ewans, 2017).
Out of a ‘longlist’ of 54 potentially interesting territories,1 Leopold II picked a region rich in natural resources such as ivory and rubber, roughly 76 times larger than Belgium, the then-largely unexplored Congo Basin (Viaene, 2008). From 1885 onwards, King Leopold II of Belgium de facto owned the Congo Free State under his personal rule. During those decades, many well-documented atrocities occurred, ranging from unjustified imprisonments to brutal mutilations. Furthermore, forced labor (and the displacement of the population that it involved) was one of the major causes of the huge population fall during this period (Goddeeris, Lauro, & Vanthemsche 2020). By the turn of the century, the violence against indigenous Congolese and the system of economic exploitation led to diplomatic pressure on Belgium to take official control (Gann 2015). Hence, Congo became a Belgian colony from 1908 until its independence in 1960.
Apologies are considered an effective strategy to promote forgiveness and healing, also in intergroup conflicts (Wohl, Hornsey, & Philpot 2011, but see Hornsey & Wohl 2013). Although neither the Belgian monarchy, nor the Belgian state has ever officially apologized for the atrocities (Ewans 2017), some small steps in this direction have taken place. For instance, in 2002, Belgium apologized for its role in the assassination of the Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba in 1961. In 2019, Belgium also acknowledged its responsibility for the segregation policy under which ‘metis’ (i.e., mixed-race) children were abducted from Congo, though it remained silent about the other facets of the colonial past. On the 30th of June, 2020, after exactly 60 years of Congolese independence, Belgium’s current king Philippe sent a formal letter expressing his ‘deepest regrets’ to President Félix Tshisekedi for the ‘suffering and humiliation’ his nation inflicted on Congolese people while colonizing the region. This letter—the king could not travel to the Democratic Republic of Congo due to the COVID-19 pandemic—was seen as historic but stopped short of an official apology (The Guardian, 2020).
Under pressure from a growing movement (https://www.sorryisastart.be) that believes Belgium needs to confront its past, other (symbolic) repair measures to ‘make amends’ have also been suggested and occasionally applied. Some city councils started changing street names related to Leopold II, and a square in Brussels was dedicated to commemorating Lumumba. The 2020 global wave of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter, and other anti-racism protests has again triggered rigorous debate about discrimination nowadays and in the past, and discussions concerning the many colonial-era monuments. As Figure 1 shows, Leopold II memorial statues and busts can be found across the county (especially in and around the capital), and some have recently been daubed with red graffiti, defaced, and/or removed. In some cases, a ‘counter-statue’ of an independence leader or a panel with additional information and contextualization was put next to Leopold’s statue. In the same vein, numerous petitions calling for wider education and awareness of Belgium’s colonial past have been signed and spread.
In short, a shift in norms is slowly but surely taking place, and it is plausible that most Belgians, especially in the younger generations (Licata & Klein 2010), are generally ready to ‘come clean’ with their country’s colonial history in some way. Such positive attitudes towards ‘healing’ the psychological scars created in the past (Staub, Pearlman, Gubin, & Hagengimana’ 2005) can take many forms: It can be done either by endorsing an official apology, by being supportive of reparations (e.g., renaming streets, or donating money to families of victims), or by wanting to create more awareness about the past (e.g., educating children in schools, or investing in books and museum tours). These three forms of healing attitudes are essential steps in the direction of true reconciliation (Staub et al. 2005). The present study took place against this backdrop, investigating Belgians’ willingness to apologize, repair, and create awareness (i.e., looking at the perpetrator perspective; Leunissen, De Cremer, Reinders Folmer, & Van Dijke 2013). Specifically, we aimed to test the role of individual differences in ideological worldviews and intergroup emotions in accounting for such “sorry”-attitudes.
One’s ideological worldview for a large part determines one’s orientation towards intergroup relations (e.g., Pratto, Sidanius, & Levin 2006). Several frameworks have been proposed, with John Duckitt’s (2001) dual-process theory of ideology being one of the most prominent and influential ones. This theory organizes ideological attitudes along two related yet independent dimensions, a social-cultural and an economic-hierarchical one (Duckitt & Sibley 2010).
The social-cultural dimension reflects attitudes towards the organization of society along ‘horizontal’ lines. On the conservative end of this dimension, values such as traditionalism, conservatism, group identity, collective security, social order, cohesion and conformity play a crucial role. This pole is best captured in the construct of Right-Wing Authoritarianism (RWA, Altemeyer 1981), which embraces a strong adherence to social norms, respect for and obedience to societal authorities, and a tough attitude towards violators of social rules and laws (Duckitt 2001). On the progressive end of this dimension, which is rarely empirically assessed, values such as open-mindedness, liberalism, universalism, and individual freedom and autonomy play a role. This ideological pole is best represented in the construct of Universality-Diversity Orientation (UDO, Miville et al. 1999), which entails the awareness and acceptance of both the similarities and differences among social groups.
The economic-hierarchical dimension reflects attitudes towards the organization of society along ‘vertical’ lines. On the conservative end of this dimension, values such as self-enhancement, status, superiority, power distance, tough-mindedness, and competition are important. This pole is represented in the Dominance facet of the social dominance orientation construct, which taps into a general preference for social hierarchy (SDO-D, Pratto, Sidanius, Stallworth, & Malle 1994). On the progressive end of this dimension, equality, humanitarianism, tendermindedness, self-transcendence, harmony, and compassion are key principles. This pole is represented in the Egalitarianism facet of the SDO-construct, which taps into (anti-)egalitarianism ideals2 (SDO-E; Ho et al. 2012, 2015). Recent research has provided robust evidence that both SDO-poles are related but relatively distinct, and both yield independent effects on important intergroup outcomes, such as prejudice (Ho et al. 2015), collective action tendencies (Meleady & Vermue 2019), and support for intergroup apologies (Karunaratne & Laham 2019).
All four ideological worldviews (i.e., RWA, UDO, SDO-D, and SDO-E) have been related to intergroup attitudes, but the bulk of these studies focused on only one or two of these predictors, and mostly looked at negative outcomes, such as prejudice (Van Assche 2019). Some research did focus on positive outcomes, such as intergroup tolerance, socially inclusive behaviors, and reconciliation. UDO, for instance, was shown to be strongly positively related to tolerance of other religious and ethnic-culturral groups (Fuertes, Miville, Mohr, Sedlacek, & Gretchen 2000; Van Assche & Van De Weghe 2020). Furthermore, Zhao, Faulkner, and Perry (2020) revealed that RWA and particularly SDO were negatively associated with interpersonal gestures (e.g., saying hello to people from other groups), volunteering to help the disadvantaged (e.g., mentoring people from disadvantaged groups), and political action. Similarly, RWA was moderately and SDO was strongly negatively related to reconciliation attitudes towards linguistic outgroups among Flemings and Walloons in Belgium (i.e., the Dutch vs. the French speaking community; Van Assche, Bostyn, De keersmaecker, Hansenne, & Dardenne 2017).
Turning to intergroup apologies in particular, Mifune, Inamasu, Kohama, Ohtsubo, and Tago (2019) recently revealed that SDO was negatively correlated with supportive attitudes towards government-issued international apologies of Japan towards countries victimized by Japan during the colonial or occupation eras. Finally, across four studies in the U.S. and Australia, Karunaratne and Laham (2019) showed that specifically the egalitarianism sub-dimension (SDO-E) predicted apology support, more so than the dominance component (SDO-D) and the social-cultural conservatism dimension of RWA. The assertion that especially UDO and SDO-E are predictive of greater tolerance and sorry-attitudes can be traced back to research on the valence congruency effect (Cacioppo, Gardner, & Berntson 1997), stating that positive predispositions are better predictors of positive attitudes, whereas negative predispositions better predict negative attitudes (see also Pittinsky, Rosenthal, & Montoya 2011). As such, we assessed two negative (RWA and SDO-D) and two positive (UDO and SDO-E) orientations towards intergroup relations, predicting that particularly the latter ones would be more strongly associated with greater support for an apology, reparations, and awareness policy.
Because public debates confronting a nation with its past immoral actions rarely take place devoid of affect, in the present study, we also investigated the potential role of group-based emotions (guilt, shame, and anger; see Rees, Allpress, & Brown 2013) and outgroup-oriented emotions (empathy; see Van Assche et al. 2017) as mechanisms through which ideological worldviews relate to pro-conciliatory attitudes. We focused on guilt and shame as self-conscious emotions related to a constructive approach orientation following ingroup immoral behavior (Leach & Cidam 2015), on anger as an intense mobilizing emotion (Leach, Iyer, & Pedersen 2006), and on empathy, probably the hardest emotion to generate in intergroup relations. Group-based guilt can be defined as feeling remorseful for the illegitimate deeds of one’s group, group-based shame is considered as feeling embarrassed about such wrongful behaviors (Doosje, Branscombe, Spears, & Manstead 1998), and group-based anger entails a strong feeling of annoyance and displeasure towards one’s group for its harmful actions (Van Zomeren, Spears, Fischer, & Leach 2004). Finally, outgroup empathy is usually conceptualized as the affective appreciation of the outgroup’s emotional state (i.e., empathic concern) and the cognitive insight into the outgroup’s viewpoint (i.e., perspective taking; Davis 1983).
On the one hand, a small set of studies has linked ideological worldviews to these emotions, exactly because such emotions appeal to the specific motives underlying each worldview (e.g., ingroup protection for those high in RWA, outgroup interest for those high in UDO, status quo protection motivations among those high in SDO-D, and egalitarian values among those high in SDO-E). Hence, higher levels of RWA and SDO have been related to lower levels of outgroup empathy (Bäckström, & Björklund 2007; Nicol & Rounding 2013; Van Assche et al. 2017), and greater UDO has been associated with higher outgroup empathy and group-based guilt (Poteat & Spanierman 2008). Notably, Shepherd and Spears (2013) revealed non-significant relationships of SDO with guilt and shame, and no studies to date have related the separate facets of SDO to these group-based and outgroup-oriented emotions.
On the other hand, numerous studies have pointed to the role of these emotions in predicting apology and repair attitudes towards groups that had been wronged in the past. Where Čehajić-Clancy, Effron, Halperin, Liberman, and Ross (2011) showed that guilt predicted support for reparative measures in Israel and Bosnia-Herzegovina, Gausel, Leach, Vignoles, and Brown (2012) showed that shame was a strong predictor of restitution attitudes in Norway. Allpres, Barlow, Brown, and Louis’s (2010) results indicated strong ties of both guilt and shame with apology and compensation support in the United Kingdom and Australia (see also McGarty et al. 2005). Furthermore, research revealed that guilt, shame, and particularly anger predicted more reparation and compensation attitudes towards Iran among British nationals (Shepherd, Manstead, & Spears 2013), towards Iraq among American citizens (Iyer, Schmader, & Lickel 2007), and towards Aboriginal Australians among non-Indigenous Australians (Leach et al. 2006). In the latter two studies, anger appeared to be the strongest and only significant predictor in an integrative model that included anger and guilt as well. As such, we predicted that group-based anger rather than guilt and shame would mediate the worldview-sorry-link.
Finally, outgroup empathy has been shown to predict both apology (Howell, Turowski, Burrow 2012) and compensation attitudes (Lu & McKeown 2018), even after controlling for guilt and shame (Brown, & Čehajić 2008). In the same vein, empathy was the only significant predictor of more willingness to let immigrants take part in university sports in a model including empathy and guilt (Harth, Kessler, & Leach 2008). The vital role of outgroup-oriented empathy over and beyond group-based emotions was also evinced by Van Assche and colleagues’ work (2017), which revealed that empathy (next to anger) mediated the relationship between RWA and reconciliation, a construct closely related to sorry-attitudes. As such, our hypothesis is that, together with anger, empathy would be the most important process explaining the worldview-sorry-associations.
At this point, it must be noted that most prior studies investigated these constructs in a piecemeal fashion, by only including one or two predictors, mediators, and/or outcomes. The present research takes a different approach by testing our hypothesis in a unifying model that includes four ideological worldviews (i.e., RWA, UDO, SDO-D, and SDO-E) as predictors, four intergroup emotions (i.e., guilt, shame, anger, and empathy) as mediators, and three healing attitudes towards Congo (repair, apology, and awareness) as outcomes (see Figure 2).
We recruited an undergraduate student sample from Ghent University to test the proposed model. Two hundred and seventy-seven Flemish (75.5% women, Mage = 18.92 years, SDage = 2.95) respondents were invited to the lab to participate in an online study in return for partial course credits. The present study was conducted in 2016 as part of a larger data collection for an unrelated project including other variables (i.e., intergroup contact, outgroup attitudes, collective action intentions, and affirmative action attitudes) as well. No prior information was given before the survey, but a detailed debriefing about the purpose of the study was provided afterwards. Data from seven participants were omitted from further analyses because they did not have the Belgian nationality, twelve others were omitted because they had a migration background. The final sample of 258 students completed the full questionnaire, yielding no missing data.
All measures were rated on 7-point Likert scales anchored by 1 (strongly disagree) and 7 (strongly agree). The means and standard deviations are included in Table 1.
First, the conservative and progressive ends of the social-cultural dimension of ideological orientations towards intergroup relations were measured. Participants responded to a 9-item version of the Duckitt, Bizumic, Krauss, and Heled’s (2010) RWA-scale. An example item is: ‘Obedience and respect for authority are the most important virtues children should learn’ (α = 0.80). UDO was assessed with the 15-item Short Form of the Miville-Guzman Universality-Diversity Scale (Fuertes et al. 2000). An example item reads ‘I would like to join an organization that emphasizes getting to know people from different countries’ (α = 0.80).
Next, the conservative and progressive ends of the economic-hierarchical ideology dimension were assessed. To measure SDO-D and SDO-E, a 4-item SDO7 scale (Ho et al. 2015) was administered. The two SDO-D items were highly interrelated (r = 0.52, p < 0.001; example item: ‘Some groups of people are simply inferior to other groups’), as were the two SDO-E items (r = 0.57, p < 0.001; reverse-coded example item: ‘Group equality should not be our primary goal’). We then created two composite measures based on the two items for each of the SDO-dimensions.
Group-based guilt was measured with three items, taken from Rees and colleagues (2013) and adapted to the Belgian-Congolese context. An example item is ‘Even if I have done nothing bad, I feel guilty for the negative things Belgians have done in Congo in the past’ (α = 0.98). Five items tapped into group-based (moral) shame (see Rees et al. 2013). An example item reads ‘I feel ashamed for the damage done by Belgians in Congo’ (α = 0.97).
Group-based anger was measured with two items, adapted from Van Assche and colleagues (2017). Both items were highly interrelated (r = 0.58, p < 0.001; example item: ‘Thinking about how Belgians have treated the Congolese makes me feel angry and irritated’). Finally, outgroup empathy was measured with two items (see Van Assche et al. 2017). Again, both items were strongly interrelated (r = 0.52, p < 0.001; example item: ‘I feel sympathy for the Congolese community’).
Attitudes towards reparation, an official apology, and awareness programs were each measured with three items. These items were based on scales by Brown, González, Zagefka, Manzi, and Čehajić (2008), and Van Assche, Politi, Van Dessel, and Phalet (2020). Some specific items (e.g., concerning street names) were added to better represent the current debate. The exact item wordings for repair attitudes are ‘I think Belgium should donate money to the families of the Congolese victims of the colonization’ (M = 3.75; SD = 1.42), ‘I think Belgium should change certain street names to the names of important Congolese freedom fighters’ (M = 3.56; SD = 1.64), and ‘I think Belgium should take immediate measures to repair the damage of its colonial past’ (M = 4.06; SD = 1.57; α = 0.80).
For apology attitudes, the items read ‘Our government should apologize for all the maltreatment and deprivation we’ve caused during the colonization of Congo’ (M = 4.73; SD = 1.60), ‘I think Belgium should officially apologize to the families of the Congolese victims’ (M = 4.84; SD = 1.58), and ‘An official apology is an important step towards the reconciliation between Belgium and Congo’ (M = 5.03; SD = 1.51; α = 0.93).
Finally, attitudes towards assistance and awareness measures were assessed as follows: ‘I would like schools to invest in books and other school materials that would help students to better understand the Belgian colonial past’ (M = 4.73; SD = 1.49), ‘I think we should systematically intervene and make Belgians aware of the colonial history of Belgium’ (M = 4.50; SD = 1.47), and ‘It is important to make Belgians aware of the immoral behavior towards Congolese during the colonization’ (M = 4.75; SD = 1.44; α = 0.90).
First, the correlations among all study variables were calculated (see Table 1). The four ideological orientations were all interrelated in the expected direction, with negative relationships between the positive and negative ends of the social-cultural (i.e., UDO and RWA), and economic-hierarchical dimensions (i.e., SDO-D and SDO-E), respectively, and with positive associations among the positive (i.e., UDO and SDO-E) and negative orientations (i.e., RWA and SDO-D). Next, the four intergroup emotions were all strongly positively interrelated, and each of them had a positive relationship with UDO. Unexpectedly, the emotions were not significantly related to RWA, SDO-D, and SDO-E, with the exception of two small associations of outgroup empathy with authoritarianism (negative direction) and egalitarianism (positive direction). Finally, the three outcomes were strongly interrelated and showed positive associations with all four intergroup emotions. Again, the only ideological orientation that was consistently related to sorry-attitudes was UDO, with the other positive orientation (i.e., SDO-E) also showing small-to-medium positive associations with apology and awareness attitudes. Notably, repair attitudes were also slightly negatively related to RWA, and apology attitudes were slightly negatively associated with both RWA and SDO-D.
The correlations already revealed some interesting patterns, pointing to the crucial role of UDO and empathy in predicting pro-conciliatory attitudes. These were further analyzed in a unifying path model using the MPlus package (version 8.1; Muthén & Muthén 2017). This path model revealed a clear and consistent pattern (see Figure 2).3 First, UDO was a strong and positive predictor of all intergroup emotions. RWA (positively) and SDO-E (negatively) also predicted outgroup empathy. Second, outgroup empathy—and to a lesser extent group-based anger—were the strongest positive predictors of apology, reparation, and awareness attitudes. Indeed, group-based anger positively predicted support for repair and awareness efforts, but not apology support. Empathy positively predicted all three outcomes, and UDO also had direct effects on all three sorry-attitudes (even after controlling for all other predictors in the model). Third, the results of our mediation model—which tested the association of ideological worldviews with healing attitudes via intergroup emotions (see Table 2)—showed that empathy was also the most important mediator explaining the associations of both positive intergroup orientations (i.e., UDO and SDO-E) with the dependent variables. Finally, although they did not reach traditional significance levels, three other (i.e., borderline significant) indirect effects are worth noting: To a minor extent, empathy (partly) explained the negative relationship of RWA with awareness, and anger (partly) mediated the links of UDO with repair and awareness attitudes.
|From RWA||Via Guilt||Via Shame||Via Anger||Via Empathy|
|To Repair||0.01 (0.02)||0.00 (0.01)||0.01 (0.02)||–0.03 (0.02)|
|To Apology||0.01 (0.01)||0.01 (0.02)||0.01 (0.02)||–0.05 (0.03)|
|To Awareness||0.00 (0.01)||0.01 (0.02)||0.01 (0.02)||–0.06a (0.03)|
|From UDO||Via Guilt||Via Shame||Via Anger||Via Empathy|
|To Repair||0.06 (0.05)||0.03 (0.06)||0.08a (0.04)||0.07* (0.04)|
|To Apology||0.05 (0.05)||0.09 (0.06)||0.06 (0.04)||0.10* (0.04)|
|To Awareness||0.01 (0.04)||0.10 (0.06)||0.06a (0.04)||0.12** (0.05)|
|From SDO-D||Via Guilt||Via Shame||Via Anger||Via Empathy|
|To Repair||0.00 (0.01)||0.00 (0.01)||–0.01 (0.02)||0.02 (0.02)|
|To Apology||0.00 (0.01)||0.01 (0.01)||–0.01 (0.01)||0.03 (0.02)|
|To Awareness||0.00 (0.01)||0.01 (0.01)||–0.01 (0.01)||0.04 (0.02)|
|From SDO-E||Via Guilt||Via Shame||Via Anger||Via Empathy|
|To Repair||0.01 (0.01)||0.00 (0.01)||0.00 (0.01)||0.03a (0.02)|
|To Apology||0.01 (0.01)||0.01 (0.01)||0.00 (0.01)||0.04* (0.02)|
|To Awareness||0.00 (0.01)||0.01 (0.01)||0.00 (0.01)||0.05* (0.02)|
The current research aimed to contribute to the recent public and political debates about Belgium’s past colonization of Congo, the acknowledgment of the atrocities during this period, and the potential ways to make amends and restore the historically tense international relations between the two countries. In particular, we investigated which ideological worldviews and intergroup emotions best predicted support for repair, apology, and awareness efforts. The model test revealed a straightforward pattern, leading to three takeaway points. First, UDO, an indicator of social-cultural open-mindedness and a generally positive orientation towards intergroup relations, appeared to be the strongest predictor of all intergroup emotions (i.e., group-based guilt, shame, anger, and outgroup empathy). Second, outgroup empathy, reflecting sympathy for and understanding of the suffering of the Congolese and the ability to take their point of view on the colonial past, was found to be the strongest predictor of all three sorry-attitudes. Third, and most importantly, this emotion of empathy was also the most important process explaining the associations of UDO with supportive attitudes towards all forms of healing.
A number of lessons can be drawn from these findings, both theoretically and practically. First, by focusing on positive intergroup outcomes, our study responded to recent calls by Noor, Brown, Gonzalez, Manzi, and Lewis (2008) and Pittinsky and colleagues (2011) for a shift in research interest from negative intergroup attitudes to the determinants of intergroup harmony. Indeed, our understanding of how to actively promote positive outcomes within intergroup relations is less well developed. Studying the social-psychological processes related to such positive outcomes is important because it could provide new insights for planning real-life interventions aimed at improving intergroup relations rather than simply reducing prejudice and conflict between groups (González, Manzi, & Noor 2011). When it comes to ‘healing’ intergroup tensions between Belgium and Congo, our results point to the key role of a universal-diverse orientation and egalitarian values, rather than the typically-studied authoritarianism and social dominance worldviews. Realizing and accepting that other groups are different than and at the same time similar to you and your ingroup, broadens your worldview (Miville et al., 1999), and stimulates egalitarian principles (Pratto et al. 2006). In a way, this is an interesting finding in the prospect of reconciliation between Belgium and Congo, because, at least according to these results, it is more advisable to try to encourage these ‘progressive’ intergroup orientations (i.e., UDO and SDO-E) than to change the negative attitudes stemming from the ‘conservative’ ideological worldviews (i.e., RWA and SDO-D).
Secondly, our results indicate that outgroup empathy (and group-based anger) also seem crucial components, much more than the typically-studied group-based emotions of guilt and shame. Other scholars (e.g., Iyer, Leach, & Pedersen 2004) have also advised to look beyond guilt and shame, suggesting that outgroup sympathy and moral outrage might play a more vital role. Guilt and shame might promote group apologies and material compensations, but these emotions do not work beyond empathy and anger, and they do not form a solid basis for general opposition to inequality (as signposted in the correlation table). Corroborating the key role of empathy, Noor and Halabi (2018) revealed that experimentally inducing empathy towards outgroup members (even violent ones, such as terrorists) among Israelis can foster forgiveness.
Based on the present findings, interventions aiming at boosting a universal-diverse orientation and increasing a sense of empathy for the suffering of the victim group seem most encouraging to bolster reconciliation (see Lastrego & Licata 2010; Seppälä et al. 2017). Such interventions incite a more broad-minded cultural openness and curiosity, which is the one of the key motives behind empathic concern. For instance, multicultural trainings have been related to improved UDO-levels (Yeh & Arora 2003), reading a letter from a Jewish person increased Arab’s empathy towards Israelis (Schechtman & Tanus 2006), and watching a short video on institutional racism augmented empathy (and racial awareness) among White Americans (Soble, Spanierman, & Liao 2011). Finally, making individuals focus on the disadvantage suffered by an outgroup evokes empathy, as such increasing support for efforts at equality between the groups (Harth et al. 2008; Lastrego & Licata 2010).
Translating these prior research findings to the Belgian-Congolese context, multicultural training interventions might open Belgians’ eyes, broaden their worldview, and as such make them more aware of the colonial past. Moreover, the usefulness of small and inexpensive interventions like reading a letter or watching a short video-clip might be even more promising. Merely providing Belgians with the opportunity to read King Philippe’s letter of regret, or to read the many online testimonials by Belgian-Congolese people (that were also published in some newspapers), could equally create awareness and support for further reconciliatory steps. In the same vein, the recent documentary ‘“Kinderen van de kolonie’ ([‘Children of the Colony’]; Canvas 2018) might have had a similar impact on its viewer audience. Future studies could evaluate this, for example, by using the innovative field work methodology proposed by Betsy Paluck (2009) in the context of Rwanda.
Our results also highlight promising next steps to further restore the relations between Belgium and Congo. Els Van Hoof, leading the Belgian Chamber of Representative’s Foreign Affairs Committee, reacted to the monarch’s letter as follows: “It’s the beginning of a process […] and it’s a process in parliament but also in society.” In the federal parliament, a commission to investigate Belgium’s colonial past has been officially installed, comparable to the Truth & Reconciliation Commission carried out in South Africa after the fall of the Apartheid regime (Gibson 2006). Such an initiative can foster cohesion between groups previously in conflict, mainly through the empathic acknowledgement of blame and the articulation of feelings of guilt, shame, and—indeed—even anger towards past wrongdoings and injustices.
Nevertheless, studies on the ‘Gacaca’ (i.e., the Truth and Reconciliation procedure developed in Rwanda after the genocide) indicate that such a view of transitional justice potent enough to heal deep psychological wounds might be too idealistic (Rimé, Kanyangara, Paez, & Yzerbyt 2012). Indeed, victims who participated in Gacaca afterwards often showed renewed/reactivated feelings of anger, were less inclined to forgive the perpetrators, were more revengeful, and opted more for intragroup and less intergroup contact (Kanyangara, Rimé, Paez, & Yzerbyt 2014). These findings are also reflected in the recommendation of Bloomfield (2003), who stated that one cannot expect Truth and Reconciliation procedures to provide reconciliation as such. Rather, they offer the ingredients that pave the way to reconciliation, while it remains essential to avoid the potential pitfalls and to learn from the experiences in other Truth and Reconciliation committees.
In this respect, the federal reconciliation commission could eventually advise the Belgian government to officially apologize. Such an apology, a speech act with the aim of promoting reconciliation between two (or more) parties (Tavuchis 1991), should not only include a statement of regret or remorse and the recognition of suffering of the victim group (which King Philippe already did), as these are just two criteria that constitute a ‘comprehensive’ apology (Tavuchis 1991). According to Blatz, Schumann, and Ross (2009; also see Scher & Darley 1997), a comprehensive apology should also comprise an acceptance of responsibility by the perpetrator group, a promise of non-repetition, and an offer of reparations, elements that were not present in the King’s letter (The Guardian, 2020).
In society, the restoration process is also ongoing, as demonstrated in the petitions, the testimonials, the adaptation of street names, other forms of solidarity-based collective action, and even in the protests and destructions of Leopold II statues. These are all signs that Belgians might be ready to make amends and face the colonial past. Indeed, as can be deduced from the mean ratings for each outcome, support for apologies and awareness policies seems relatively high. While we did not assess the other side of the acknowledgement coin, i.e., denial, we can expect that most Belgians do recognize the past wrongdoings and levels of denial would be fairly low (although we should be careful with extrapolations based on the average scores in the outcomes found in the current Flemish student sample). We can also expect that individual differences in worldviews and emotions would predict individual differences in such denial. Results from previous studies in fact mirrored this claim, by demonstrating that denial is fueled by system-justifying worldviews such as RWA and SDO (Sibley, Liu, Duckitt, & Khan 2008) and by indicating that the group-based emotions under study here (e.g., guilt and shame) can form a barrier against such denial (see Bilali, Iqbal, & Freel 2019). That said, support for repair measures seems lower (though it is still around the theoretical scale mean).4 Just like the Belgian government, the Belgian population seems rather hesitant to make monetary and other compensations towards the Congolese, perhaps due to political and legal considerations (e.g., fear that the money would be misused, given the recent allegations of deep-rooted corruption within the regime; see Matti 2010). One potential way to overcome this hesitation, is starting a conversation with (the families of) the actual victims, without shifting onus obligations onto them (Zaiser & Giner-Sorolla 2013). Such open conversations might help to overcome fears and threat perceptions that impede current repair initiatives.
Future research should consider whether it is truly the realistic-economic threat concerns that drive Belgians’ attitudes, or whether a symbolic sense of threat pertaining to pride of one’s ingroup culture and image also plays a role. Such studies could examine these threat processes in the long run, whilst at the same time including (changes in) intergroup emotions over time. It also remains the question if these results would replicate in a representative adult sample, which would typically be lower in education and in open-minded ideological worldviews (Franssen, Dhont, & Van Hiel 2013). Importantly, previous work (e.g., Licata & Klein 2010) also indicated that older Belgians typically have a more positive, paternalistic representation of the colonial era, as evinced in lower levels of collective guilt and lower support for reparative actions. Future studies should thus include older generations to examine if ideological worldviews and intergroup emotions play a similar role in this group. Although generational mean differences in healing attitudes might be observed (e.g., due to older people’s identity being more threatened, their knowledge of the past being more elaborated, or their interpretation of the history being more paternalistic), equivalent associations with worldviews and emotions are expected in both young and old populations.
In the same vein, it should be investigated whether our findings are generalizable to the French-speaking community in Belgium. Perceptions of victimhood with regards to the Belgian linguistic conflict are found to be higher among Dutch-speaking Belgians, and especially (again) among the older generations (Rimé, Bouchat, Klein, & Licata 2015; see also Lastrego & Licata 2010). This subsample of older Flemings showed particularly lower levels of national identification and greater support for radical separation of the country. Such perceptions cannot be seen independently from the economic, political, and colonial background in which this generation was brought up and socialized. Indeed, the power hierarchy between the linguistic groups was different during the colonial epoch, with French-speaking Belgians having more economic and political control. As older Dutch-speaking individuals might feel like their group was not the prime perpetrator in Congo, one could expect a large generational difference in a Flemish sample (with especially older individuals being opposed to an apology or another form of reparation), while a smaller generational difference would be expected in a Walloon sample (with younger and older people being relatively in favor of healing, depending on their social-ideological makeup). This tentative hypothesis could be explored in future research.
Finally, future work should also investigate what the Congolese think about this issue. This study only considered the perspective of Belgium (the perpetrator group), but it is also relevant to examine the perspective of Congo (the victim group). For example, is there a need for an apology among Congolese citizens nowadays? Are they willing to receive and/or accept an apology (cf. Leunissen et al. 2013)? What kind of reparations do they wish for? Licata and colleagues (2018) already revealed that, compared to the social representations of perpetrators, victim parties on average have higher expectations concerning the perpetrator party’s willingness to offer reparations. This victim perspective is therefore something that should be further addressed (Licata & Klein 2005). After all, recovery and reconciliation are processes that take place in the context of (at least) two parties (both perpetrator and victim).
To summarize, the present findings add nuance to the heated and polarized discussions on how Belgium can fully reconcile with Congo and can be applied to offer a more detailed picture on how other collective movements around the globe are presently fighting to make amends with past misconducts and ‘bury the hatchet’. Our findings indicate that open-minded individuals, in particular the ones embodying a universal and inclusive worldview towards social-cultural outgroups, seem to be the ones most willing to apologize to Congo, repair the immoral behaviors in some way, and create more awareness about this dark page in Belgium’s history, exactly because they feel more empathic concern for the historical outgroup sufferings.
By supporting this notion of ‘sorry’, these Belgians solicit the Congolese nowadays to forgive, although it is unlikely that they will ever forget, as summed up in Lumumba’s (1960) original Independence Speech: ‘Although this independence of the Congo is being proclaimed today by agreement with Belgium, an amicable country, with which we are on equal terms, no Congolese will ever forget that independence was won in struggle.’
Data are available on https://osf.io/ypbkr/.
1Belgium also controlled large parts of Rwanda and Burundi from 1922 to 1962 and had a small concession in Tianjin, China (Nield 2015).
2Until recently, SDO was assessed globally as a unidimensional construct (not explicitly distinguishing between SDO-D and SDO-E). Note that SDO-E is usually interpreted as the anti-egalitarianism sub-dimension of social dominance orientation. For the purpose of this study, however, we reversed the items of the SDO-E scale and considered it a pro-egalitarianism measure, as such presenting an ideological worldview involving a positive (economic-hierarchical) orientation towards intergroup relations.
3Analyses controlling for age and gender yielded almost identical results (i.e., all significant effects remained significant, and all effects that were not significant remained not significant), with one small exception: the significant indirect effect of UDO on repair attitudes via empathy no longer reached the conventional significance threshold after controlling for age and gender. Fit indices for the latter model were as follows: CFI = 0.99, RMSEA = 0.04 and SRMR = 0.03.
4The data had already been collected before the 60th anniversary of the Congolese independence, and the events that surrounded this commemoration (e.g., King Philippe’s letter, and the removal of Leopold II statues).
The authors have no competing interests to declare.
J.V.A. conceived of the presented idea, J.V.A. and A.R. made substantial contributions to the design of the work. J.V.A. performed data acquisition, analysis, and interpretation of the results. J.V.A. drafted the manuscript, A.R., T.H., and M.N. provided several critical revisions. All authors approved the final version of this paper.
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