A professor in the Faculty of Psychological Science and Education, Laurent Licata is also a member of the research centre in social and intercultural psychology (CRePSI). His research focuses on collective memory, social identity, inter-group and inter-cultural relations, and collective emotions. Since 2016, he has also been the Vice-Rector for academic policy and career management at ULB, in charge of diversity and gender policies.


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March, 2016 – Terrorist attacks in Brussels

Laurent Licata, research centre in Social and Intercultural Psychology

Laurent Licata, the attacks in Paris, Brussels, and Nice have created great turmoil. An expression has been on all lips: "vivre ensemble", or living together. Some are even wondering how we function (or used to function) as a society.

In a "normal" situation, you, me, our neighbours, and our colleagues all have goals; in order to meet them, we call upon representations of ourselves and of the world. When we reach these goals, and especially when we exceed them or reach them faster than anticipated, our representations of ourselves and society are reinforced. With our beliefs thus reaffirmed, we confidently carry on with our actions, and this is how we build our identity. Who we are (our personality traits, etc.), what we do (our actions, our position taking), and how others respond to us (granting or denying recognition). We have an individual identity, but also collective identities, depending on the groups to which we belong. For instance, I have an identity as Laurent Licata, one as a ULB professor, one as a researcher in social psychology, one as a person who wears glasses, and so on. Depending upon the context, I can put any of these identities in the foreground. This is a theoretical, ‘normal’, situation, outside of any crisis. When the attacks happened in March, it was a huge blow to our values, our beliefs, and our representations of the world.

…and this crystallises certain identities?

That's right, for instance Belgian identity: people display the country’s flag, or pictures of Tintin or Manneken Pis on their Facebook profiles. This is nothing new: Manneken Pis was depicted urinating on German soldiers during World War I, on a swastika during World War II, and on jihadist terrorists in 2016. People are gathering on Place de la Bourse where they pour out their feelings, writing or drawing about their values: we are reassuring ourselves about who we are. What appears as openness can, however, actually be withdrawal into this group whose very borders are being redefined: what does it mean to be a Belgian today? It is clear that citizens who shared symbols of peace do not have the same definition as hooligans who came to demonstrate, yet all were gathered on Place de la Bourse after the attacks. There were even Muslims, who also considered themselves to be on the side of the victims of the terrorist attacks.

Several months have passed, yet identities still appear to be hurt and exacerbated.

This is true, and the current crisis will likely be all the more difficult to overcome that our identities are multifaceted and their affirmation depends upon how others react. Back to our theoretical model, for instance: imagine I am a Muslim Belgian student. Depending on the time or the context, I might outwardly adopt any one of these identities. After the attacks, whenever I present myself as a Muslim, the feedback I get from society is negative and demeaning: I am seen as ‘responsible’, as an ‘accomplice’ and a ‘threat’. I can then react in one of two ways: my individual strategy can be to distance myself from the shunned group, and join instead a different group where I will get positive feedback from society. This is the idea of social mobility, where my situation depends on myself and on my own efforts. However, I can also have an opposite reaction, and cling even more tightly to this disparaged identity.

Many Belgians fail to understand this identity affirmation, or even feel threatened by it.

But there is a sensible explanation for it: if I do not understand why my group is not well regarded, if I feel like its members are unfairly treated and like I cannot escape it, then I might affirm this shunned identity even more. The feeling of threat (whether real or symbolic) is also understandable, but it is actually two-sided: the majority feels that its identity is threatened by a minority that demands its differences be recognised, while the minority fears that their culture might dissolve into the majority’s.

So how can we learn to live together?

Today, nearly nine months after the Brussels attacks, we are past emotional reactions in the heat of the moment; we can afford the luxury of perspective. We all have different cultural, religious, or socio-economical identities. Instead of denying them or locking them in ghettos, we must set aside places and times where we can meet and discuss our identities and our life together. This is how we can build a more inclusive definition of our identity. This process is essential, especially considering that we ultimately pursue the same goals: be reassured, be recognised, live in both actual and symbolic safety, and so on.


Tuesday, March 22

A first explosion at 7.58 a.m., then a second, shake the Brussels Airport. At 9.11 a.m., another explosion rocks the Maalbeek metro station. Everywhere, screams, tears, sirens, corpses strewn among the debris, scenes of panic, but also of solidarity.

The terrorist organisation known as the Islamic State (IS) claims responsibility for the two suicide attacks. In total, 32 people are killed and 324 wounded.

Three days of national mourning are announced; hundreds of people gather on Place de la Bourse where they express their sorrow, their courage, and their solidarity, while the country is placed under high alert (level 4, then level 3).

After Paris (in November, 2015), Brussels is struck by terrorism; Nice and others will follow in 2016.