A few years ago I had received some feedback from someone about a research paper that I was going to submit to a major conference. Paraphrasing the feedback (repeating the exact words, even with the reference, will be copying: won’t it?), I was told that there was something that I had put in the paper, which, if I insisted on retaining, might make the reviewer look at my paper in a negative light. So, if I didn’t remove that part, I would be shooting myself in the foot.
This is beside the point, but I thought what I had added was correct and so I retained it. The paper was rejected, but I would like to believe that the reason for rejection was not that I had shot myself in the foot.
Getting back to the point, this is an expression that I have come across innumerable times, mostly directed at others, but sometimes directed at me. As a person who claims to be a writer, translator as well as a researcher in a language related discipline (among other things), I can’t help obsessing about how such expressions are used and what they mean, what they show and what they hide.
But I am not interested in writing an academic paper about that. So I write something here. And you are not supposed to review this piece when I submit the next Computational Linguistics paper which might come to you for review. (See the comment functionality below?).
Recently, Chomsky used this expression in a speech, saying ‘those who are being harmed are shooting themselves in the foot’. Now, most of the time that I have come across this expression, I have thought it was being used cynically to show something which wasn’t there and to hide something that was there. Or for some other questionable purposes. However, the people using this expression were mostly respectable well meaning people. Most probably they hadn’t thought about this expression in the way that I had done. May be because if they were to do it, they would be shooting themselves in the foot.
But when Chomsky uses this expression, I can’t but believe that he is using it to mean something sensible, not cynical (if this last part looks strange to you, look up the meanings and histories of these two words, especially the second one).
I do believe that what Chomsky said was basically correct. That is, there are some people who are being harmed and they are indeed shooting themselves in the foot (I am not sure whether I am one of them or not).
The reason I am writing this is that I also believe (based on evidence, not on faith) that such people are (relatively) so few that ridiculing them or offering them advice is hardly going to matter. I must add here that Chomsky did actually caution against ridiculing such people (who have realized that they are being systematically harmed). He only expressed his disappointment that instead of doing something to stop this systematic harming, they are shooting themselves in the foot.
You see, there are also people who are being harmed and are shooting themselves in the head (or ‘consuming pesticide’). You might say that they belong to the same category because the expression is metaphorically wide enough to cover them. That might be true. But then there are also a far larger number of people who are being harmed and they are doing something very different.
They are not shooting themselves in the foot (or in the head). They are shooting others (who are also being harmed) in the foot*. Often they are also shooting others (who are also being harmed) in the head. Sometimes they are doing it for a few extra peanuts, sometimes just for the fun of it and sometimes because they have been led to believe that these targets are their enemies (or the enemies of the nation, or the enemies of the society, or of the religion, or of the community etc.). And since doing it openly is a bit problematic (not cool anymore, baby!), they often have to make it appear as if their target shot himself in the foot (or in the head), whether deliberately or accidentally.
* Perhaps they are programmed in Concurrent Euclid.
So, my take on the matter is that we should be talking about people who are being harmed and who are (literally or metaphorically) shooting others who are also being harmed, whether in the foot or in the head. Because without them, the whole shooting machinery probably won’t be able to operate. In fact, to visualize a grisly scenario, if all such people stopped shooting others (who are being harmed) and started only to shoot themselves in the foot, even then the shooting machinery will probably become dysfunctional. Fortunately, most of the people will not be interested in shooting themselves in the foot (or in the head) if they are just able to find any feasible alternative. Unfortunately, no one from above can tell a person what such an alternative means in practical terms in that person’s circumstances and it’s very hard to find it out for oneself. It’s very hard to even be sure that such an alternative exists. If it does, it’s very hard to translate it into any meaningful action. Compared to a a few decades earlier, it is infinitely harder now, given the extraordinary consolidation of the global power structure (going far beyond what Foucault had studied up to his time), to a great extent due to the techno-administrative ‘advances’ (mostly in the name of security).
There are, surely, people who are being harmed but are not shooting others (being harmed or not being harmed). I won’t say anything about them right now.
(To academic busybodies and surface-style junkies: don’t bother to count the number of times the said expression has been used in this short piece: it has been done very deliberately. Perhaps the author was trying to shoot …).
For having read the above, here is a bonus link: Fascism then. Fascism now?