The song “Killing an Arab” by The Cure is an homage to the existential novel L’Étranger (The Stranger) by Albert Camus. The original novel is a classic, read by many a high school student in Advanced Placement English class, and many a freshman philosophy student in college. It is a complicated story of a man who is detached and seemingly incapable of feeling emotion. The main character is disoriented after attending his mother’s funeral, an apathetically shoots an Arab man on the beach. During the trial, the prosecutor focuses almost entirely on the main character’s lack of emotion as a reason for indicting him.
It’s a powerful and iconic story of alienation, and many people see it as one of the cornerstone pieces of literature related to Existentialism.
But it’s called “Killing an Arab”.
So, lots of people who never listened to the song, and never read the book on which it was based, thought it was calling for violence against Arabs. Some of these people were racist, and thought that was awesome; other people thought it was despicable. Protests resulted, and people demanded that the record be adorned with warning stickers, which the record label eventually agreed to. From a 1987 article in the New York Times:
“It is a form of censorship,” said Chris Parry, the Cure’s manager, after a news conference at the United Nations Plaza Hotel to announce the agreement. “But at least it’s voluntary and it’s partial. There are some things that one has just got to accept. I’m not going to have the Cure’s music being used by people in a manner it’s not meant to be used.”
Over the years, it has continued to create controversy, even though it is not a racist song, and anyone who understands the meaning of the song would understand that the title Killing an Arab is not promoting or encouraging violence against anyone. But in 2001, when The Cure had re-released some “Greatest Hits” albums and was about to go on tour again, Robert Smith, the lead singer, once again addressed the issue. From an interview published in Chart Attack in 2001:
“If there’s one thing I would change, it’s the title,” says Smith, sounding a little weary. “I wrote it when I was still in school and I had no idea that anyone would ever listen to it other than my immediate school friends. One of the themes of the song is that everyone’s existence is pretty much the same. Everyone lives, everyone dies, our existences are the same. It’s as far from a racist song as you can write. It seems though that no one can get past the title and that’s incredibly frustrating.”
In 2005, The Cure even performed a version of the song with altered lyrics, as “Kissing an Arab”. Which doesn’t make any sense at all, and has absolutely nothing to do with what the song is actually about. Later performances changed the line in the song to “Killing another.”
For many people, all of these concessions, and the fact that the song has been systematically censored from publication in certain regions or in certain album releases, is a sign of a larger problem in our culture with so-called “political correctness”.
And although I’m not “anti-PC” by any stretch of the imagination, I have some sympathy for this criticism. I’m radically pro-education, and I’m radically pro-people-knowing-what-they-are-actually-criticizing. My first instinct is to be very angry at these stupid people who cry “racism” without even listening to the song or bothering to learn what the song is really about.
Moreover, I think that conceding to their complaints is damaging to society: it is affirming and coddling people who react based on a lack of information. It is saying that it is OK to judge something based on your own misunderstanding. I don’t think we should be training people to accept reactions that are based on a lack of learning or inquisitiveness.
And if I were in charge of the world, I would say: “No! We will not put warning stickers and we will not change the title of this song! And anyone who cries ‘racism’ will be forced to both listen to all of the lyrics and read the novel The Stranger so that they can be a little more educated!”
Alas… I am not in charge of the world.
And neither is Robert Smith.
I try to imagine what it must feel like for poor Robert Smith. You can tell, when you read interviews with him, that it really upsets him that there are racists out there who celebrate his song because they think it is promoting violence against Arabs. You can even tell, in some of the spoken interviews, that the issue just wears him out. He’s in a legitimately difficult position.
What would you do? On the one hand, you know what the song is really about, and you know it’s not racist. But you also know that people are people, and sometimes you have to treat “the masses” like a natural catastrophe: you can’t stop it, you can’t yell at it for not doing what you want, all you can do is batten down the hatches and do everything you can to minimize the damage.
When Robert Smith performed the song with the lyrics “Killing Another”, and when he agreed to have the song published with anti-racist warning stickers, that is exactly what he was doing. He was acknowledging that we live in the real world, and those people will react in a mindless uneducated manner no matter what we do. Some people behave stupidly, and all we can do is close all the windows and tie down our belongings and hope the rampaging natural disaster of “the masses” doesn’t do too much damage.
So I can’t be too mad at Robert Smith for “giving in” to self-censorship. I’m not sure that I would behave any differently, if I were confronted with the kind of reaction that he has to deal with to his song, on a mass scale.
Luckily, I don’t have to deal with it. I can simply play my small part: and continue to listen to and enjoy the song, and if anyone asks me… I can even take the time to explain what the song means.