Victimhood is a terrible state of being. The source of victimhood was always attributed to tyranny and dictatorship, autocratic governments or religious and social oppression. Victimhood of many populations was also due to being ruled and exploited by alien elites whose social, religious and racial characteristics were different from the people they conquered and ruled. The alien elites dominated all structures to the exclusion of members of the subject population. The dynamic for national liberation was based on these factors and by the desire to remove victimhood. Yet victimhood has become the dominant theme even in modern democracies where individuals have state-protected equal rights.
Victimhood in democracies is based on gender, race, language, religion, sect, tribe, and caste. This makes mobilisation of individual members for achieving group objectives feasible. However, victimhood also pervades within groups as not all group members are equally disadvantaged. These differences may even be greater than that between groups.
Individual victimhood is far more damaging than group victimhood in as much as it directly affects the individual and his capacity. It is a fundamental fact that every individual can claim some disability or the other—imagined or real—which can be conveniently blamed on external and systemic factors. Such blame can divert the individual from putting in adequate efforts to achieve his goals. He assumes that any negative outcome is predetermined by the nature of the society which systematically prevents his success because of his group identity. This means that he condemns himself to a life of unachievable goals and, as a consequence, to individual inactivity. When this happens on large scale, it is an all-round disaster. On the other hand, there are individuals who, taking into account their own inadequacies and limited potential and systemic barriers, strive to achieve goals which they find easy to achieve and later achieve difficult goals as they get on with their life.
In social terms, equality of opportunity is a fundamental and legitimate individual right regardless of group identity. However, equality of opportunity cannot guarantee equality of outcomes as much depends on the inherent nature, capacity, hard work and willingness of the individual to seize the opportunities to achieve success in a merit-based system.
In some societies, individuals belonging to historically disadvantaged groups are granted preference in opportunity as well as outcome regardless of established standards of merit. In any merit-based system such individuals will normally find it difficult to compete with those accepted based on established standards. The feeling of victimhood which was the basis of a person’s preferential selection will therefore continue as long as he does not achieve the desired levels of competence. Upgrading competence by intensive training and enhanced motivation are neglected and the individual is left to his own fate in coping with systemic requirements.
What is worse is that his colleagues whose success was based just on their own competence and effort begin to feel victimised. Such a personnel mix—especially if the proportion of victimhood-based selection is high—is guaranteed to adversely affect systemic performance. Further, both types of personnel resent the other. Consequently individual interests dominate work processes and the system is corrupted.
If a society has some subsystems which induct individuals based on concessions to group victimhood and other subsystems which recruit based only on merit, then the comparative efficiency and effectiveness of the subsystems will predictably vary. Public systems which are required to follow differential standards for recruitment and promotion of individuals of preferred groups will be less capable in achieving their outputs and outcomes compared to private systems which do not have this rule. Further, the exit option for individuals for lack of competence or non-fulfillment of targets is not part of public system policy and as such these public systems are unable to correct poor hiring decisions or discriminate in promotion on the basis of performance.
As these individuals rise within the hierarchy due to time-based promotions, and with no differential remuneration based on performance all individuals tend to perform below accepted and acceptable norms. And the system deteriorates. Private systems that attract the best talent—regardless of group affiliation—are based on hire-and-fire mode and that serves to drive individual performance.
The idea of victimhood, either of a group or of an individual is an entirely negative concept which has no long-term positive outcomes either for the individual, group or society in general. Conceptually, concessions to victimhood, either of a group or of an individual, are guaranteed to accentuate rather than ameliorate social conditions.
Preference to individuals of victimhood groups in public employment tends to produce new claims of victimhood from other groups as also from particular sub-groups within victimhood groups. The society begins to fracture further and begins to be ordered based on proportional parity of social groups rather than implementing equality of individuals.
The solution, if there is one, is to universalise quality education from the primary level to enable all citizens to take advantage of the equality of opportunity based on merit that democratic societies offer and what viable and efficient systems need in order to succeed.
In the final analysis, every society has to decide whether it will encourage hierarchies based on social selection or hierarchies of competence. Either way hierarchies are inevitable. What is not inevitable is the choice between these hierarchies—for that choice will determine the future of a society and its citizens.
Former Dean of Research and Consultancy,Administrative Staff College of India