How to interpret “kill Americans”

The South Korean rapper Psy–whose “Gangnam Style” goofy dance moves have become the top YouTube video of all time–was once virulently anti-American.  In 2004 at an anti-Iraq war concert, he rapped these lyrics written by a South Korean metal group:

“Kill those f—— Yankees who have been torturing Iraqi captive / Kill those f——- Yankees who ordered them to torture / Kill their daughters, mothers, daughters-in-law, and fathers / Kill them all slowly and painfully.”

Now he is apologizing:

“While I’m grateful for the freedom to express one’s self, I’ve learned there are limits to what language is appropriate and I’m deeply sorry for how these lyrics could be interpreted. I will forever be sorry for any pain I have caused by those words.”

My interest is not in Psy’s anti-Americanism or his violent lyrics.  I’m sure his apology is sincere.  But what gets me is his reference to “how these lyrics could be interpreted.”  He says to kill Yankees and the girls and women in their families.  In what sense is that statement in need of interpretation?  How else could those words be interpreted, other than as an exhortation to kill Americans and their families?

The notion that all language statements and assertions stand in need of interpretation and may be interpreted in many different ways–including those that contradict the explicit meaning–is wreaking all kinds of havoc.  Especially  when treating the Bible.  Theology has often become an exercise in interpreting away Biblical statements that the theologian does not agree with.

To be sure, some language calls for interpretation, but other language is clear on its face.  Some of the controversies involve questions about which is which. But even interpretation is supposed to help us understand what has been said, rather than undoing what has been said.

via Heat is on South Korean rapper Psy for anti-American rap – The Washington Post.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • James Sarver

    Just an angry rant against perceived injustice rendered in bad poetry by an arrogant young man. Kind of silly to give it the weight of an Islamic fatwa. The key to interpretation is context.

    Read the first half of Pslam 109 and forget about the rest of scripture and you will see what I mean.

  • James Sarver

    Just an angry rant against perceived injustice rendered in bad poetry by an arrogant young man. Kind of silly to give it the weight of an Islamic fatwa. The key to interpretation is context.

    Read the first half of Pslam 109 and forget about the rest of scripture and you will see what I mean.

  • Stone the Crows

    Follow the money. This modestly talented angry young man wants to go mainstream and the first order of buisness is to not bite the hand that feeds him; hence the non-apology apology (how these lyrics could be interpreted) that clears the way for a big carreer without having to eat too much crow and simply say ‘I was wrong’ but rather ‘what I did had unitended consequences.’ The disgusting thing about these censuring apologies which blame the vicitim is not that people make them but that gullible fools accept them.

  • Stone the Crows

    Follow the money. This modestly talented angry young man wants to go mainstream and the first order of buisness is to not bite the hand that feeds him; hence the non-apology apology (how these lyrics could be interpreted) that clears the way for a big carreer without having to eat too much crow and simply say ‘I was wrong’ but rather ‘what I did had unitended consequences.’ The disgusting thing about these censuring apologies which blame the vicitim is not that people make them but that gullible fools accept them.

  • forty-two

    Crows @2: The disgusting thing about these censuring apologies which blame the vicitim is not that people make them but that gullible fools accept them.

    In defense of “non-apology” apologies – in which you apologize for the hurt you unintentionally caused, not the actions which caused the hurt (probably because you aren’t sorry for those) – it is entirely possible to regret hurting people while not regretting the action that hurt them (because you did the action for other reasons, and people getting hurt was collateral damage).

    For example, I know that sometimes I feel the need to speak up on a sensitive topic, and often, despite my best efforts, people are hurt by my words. On the one hand, I am not sorry I said them, because I thought they needed to be said. But on the other hand, I *am* sorry that I caused hurt by my words, however noble my intentions. Both are true – it doesn’t have to be an either/or thing.

    Personally, I think it is better to offer what apology you sincerely can than to either lie and say you’re sorry for things you aren’t, in fact, actually sorry for, or to just not apologize for *anything* because you can’t apologize for *everything*. People often appreciate knowing that you regret their being hurt, even if you would have done it all again, and think better of you than they do if you appear to be indifferent to the hurt you caused.

  • forty-two

    Crows @2: The disgusting thing about these censuring apologies which blame the vicitim is not that people make them but that gullible fools accept them.

    In defense of “non-apology” apologies – in which you apologize for the hurt you unintentionally caused, not the actions which caused the hurt (probably because you aren’t sorry for those) – it is entirely possible to regret hurting people while not regretting the action that hurt them (because you did the action for other reasons, and people getting hurt was collateral damage).

    For example, I know that sometimes I feel the need to speak up on a sensitive topic, and often, despite my best efforts, people are hurt by my words. On the one hand, I am not sorry I said them, because I thought they needed to be said. But on the other hand, I *am* sorry that I caused hurt by my words, however noble my intentions. Both are true – it doesn’t have to be an either/or thing.

    Personally, I think it is better to offer what apology you sincerely can than to either lie and say you’re sorry for things you aren’t, in fact, actually sorry for, or to just not apologize for *anything* because you can’t apologize for *everything*. People often appreciate knowing that you regret their being hurt, even if you would have done it all again, and think better of you than they do if you appear to be indifferent to the hurt you caused.

  • Dr. Luther in the 21st Century

    Cultural differences, maybe? I don’t know enough about Korean culture to say if it is possible that is behind his apology or not. But at least the question should be asked.

  • Dr. Luther in the 21st Century

    Cultural differences, maybe? I don’t know enough about Korean culture to say if it is possible that is behind his apology or not. But at least the question should be asked.

  • DonS

    These non-apology apologies are definitely the trend, which makes perfect sense in a postmodern world lacking any sense of absolutes.

    Take his “apology” for what it’s worth. Clearly, he is not sorry he said what he said. He’s just sorry that some of us are offended by it, and that offense might harm his hoped-for career. If that apology works for you, great. If you would actually like him to be sorry for wishing you murdered, then this “apology” doesn’t cut it.

  • DonS

    These non-apology apologies are definitely the trend, which makes perfect sense in a postmodern world lacking any sense of absolutes.

    Take his “apology” for what it’s worth. Clearly, he is not sorry he said what he said. He’s just sorry that some of us are offended by it, and that offense might harm his hoped-for career. If that apology works for you, great. If you would actually like him to be sorry for wishing you murdered, then this “apology” doesn’t cut it.

  • dust

    when we are at the point where we need to interpret what it means to interpret, we flying over the cuckoo’s nest :)

    cheers!

  • dust

    when we are at the point where we need to interpret what it means to interpret, we flying over the cuckoo’s nest :)

    cheers!

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    He says to kill Yankees and the girls and women in their families. In what sense is that statement in need of interpretation?

    Really? This doesn’t seem too hard to work out.

    Have you ever seen a child that was so angry that he yelled at his sibling or parent, “I wish you were dead!”? Do you really think that is his actual wish? That is, that if that parent or sibling met a grisly fate immediately afterward, he would be happy as a result, both immediately and long afterward?

    I think we recognize such statements as being poorly considered expressions of anger and frustration. Lacking a way with words (or the ability to do anything about the situation), the speaker says things in the strongest way he knows how.

    I don’t know if it’s a modern thing or if it’s always been this way, but the young (and the foolish) are especially given to talking in extremes. It’s not merely enough to say that something is nice, it has to be “the best”. And, on the flip side, you’re not merely having a bad day (or hour), you’re having “the worst day of my life” and wish you were “never born”.

    Psy was clearly beyond frustrated with the situation in Iraq. He was angry at what Americans had done — particularly, one might note, what they had done to two Korean schoolgirls.

    Does that mean he literally wanted those hearing him to commit murder? Perhaps revenge fantasies played out in his head, but is that the same thing as literally wanting something? I know that the same sin underlies both, as our Savior taught us.

    But that works both ways. We could equally say that, from an interpretative stance, Psy was merely giving vent to feelings of anger and hatred, not literally condoning murder.

    What’s funny is that, in a different context, statements made from anger and frustration would be defended by American right-wingers. When a child is angry at his teacher and draws a picture of her getting blown up by a bomb or the like, it is American right-wingers who often complain about the heavy-handed reaction handed down by school administrators. “He didn’t mean it,” they say. “This is an over-reaction.” But then, that child is typically assumed to be One Of Us, not a foreigner like Psy is.

    I think we’re more used to defending — that is, interpreting — such statements than Dr. Veith lets on.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    He says to kill Yankees and the girls and women in their families. In what sense is that statement in need of interpretation?

    Really? This doesn’t seem too hard to work out.

    Have you ever seen a child that was so angry that he yelled at his sibling or parent, “I wish you were dead!”? Do you really think that is his actual wish? That is, that if that parent or sibling met a grisly fate immediately afterward, he would be happy as a result, both immediately and long afterward?

    I think we recognize such statements as being poorly considered expressions of anger and frustration. Lacking a way with words (or the ability to do anything about the situation), the speaker says things in the strongest way he knows how.

    I don’t know if it’s a modern thing or if it’s always been this way, but the young (and the foolish) are especially given to talking in extremes. It’s not merely enough to say that something is nice, it has to be “the best”. And, on the flip side, you’re not merely having a bad day (or hour), you’re having “the worst day of my life” and wish you were “never born”.

    Psy was clearly beyond frustrated with the situation in Iraq. He was angry at what Americans had done — particularly, one might note, what they had done to two Korean schoolgirls.

    Does that mean he literally wanted those hearing him to commit murder? Perhaps revenge fantasies played out in his head, but is that the same thing as literally wanting something? I know that the same sin underlies both, as our Savior taught us.

    But that works both ways. We could equally say that, from an interpretative stance, Psy was merely giving vent to feelings of anger and hatred, not literally condoning murder.

    What’s funny is that, in a different context, statements made from anger and frustration would be defended by American right-wingers. When a child is angry at his teacher and draws a picture of her getting blown up by a bomb or the like, it is American right-wingers who often complain about the heavy-handed reaction handed down by school administrators. “He didn’t mean it,” they say. “This is an over-reaction.” But then, that child is typically assumed to be One Of Us, not a foreigner like Psy is.

    I think we’re more used to defending — that is, interpreting — such statements than Dr. Veith lets on.

  • DonS

    tODD @ 7: Fair enough. But Psy didn’t apologize for what he said. He only apologized for how it was interpreted. If that seven year old you referenced said or otherwise expressed that his teacher should be blown up, and he were my child, he would be at the teacher’s desk apologizing profusely for what he expressed, not just how they interpreted it. And I would expect the same of Psy, no matter how “frustrated” he was.

  • DonS

    tODD @ 7: Fair enough. But Psy didn’t apologize for what he said. He only apologized for how it was interpreted. If that seven year old you referenced said or otherwise expressed that his teacher should be blown up, and he were my child, he would be at the teacher’s desk apologizing profusely for what he expressed, not just how they interpreted it. And I would expect the same of Psy, no matter how “frustrated” he was.

  • DonS

    Hmm, where did I get the idea that tODD referenced a seven year old @ 7, as I stated @ 8? I’m not sure, but substitute “child” for “seven year old” . It doesn’t change the point, except that I’m not so sure I would agree that a child drawing such a violent picture shouldn’t necessarily be subject to the so-called “heavy handed” discipline. That is a different case than a child taking a pocket knife to school because he thinks it’s cool and he always carries it, and being suspended because of a “zero tolerance” policy to having knives at school. But, at a minimum, the child certainly should apologize for his expression, not merely the teacher’s interpretation. As should Psy.

  • DonS

    Hmm, where did I get the idea that tODD referenced a seven year old @ 7, as I stated @ 8? I’m not sure, but substitute “child” for “seven year old” . It doesn’t change the point, except that I’m not so sure I would agree that a child drawing such a violent picture shouldn’t necessarily be subject to the so-called “heavy handed” discipline. That is a different case than a child taking a pocket knife to school because he thinks it’s cool and he always carries it, and being suspended because of a “zero tolerance” policy to having knives at school. But, at a minimum, the child certainly should apologize for his expression, not merely the teacher’s interpretation. As should Psy.

  • P.C.

    tODD@7 wrote, “What’s funny is that, in a different context, statements made from anger and frustration would be defended by American right-wingers…”

    Hmmm. Right-wingers??? Let’s go back a year or so ago and I remember those left-wingers making all kind of excuses about the behavior of the Occupy Movement.

    I think it is wise, tODD, to leave politics out of this one.

  • P.C.

    tODD@7 wrote, “What’s funny is that, in a different context, statements made from anger and frustration would be defended by American right-wingers…”

    Hmmm. Right-wingers??? Let’s go back a year or so ago and I remember those left-wingers making all kind of excuses about the behavior of the Occupy Movement.

    I think it is wise, tODD, to leave politics out of this one.

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    I interpret it as, “I opportunistically took advantage of how people were feeling at the time. A guy’s gotta eat, you know.”

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    I interpret it as, “I opportunistically took advantage of how people were feeling at the time. A guy’s gotta eat, you know.”

  • Joanne

    Somehow, this reminds me of the Woody Allen statment about investing money. I give all my money to my investor, and he invests it till it’s all gone.

    tODD at 7: Nice explanation, interpretation, and excuse. Are you a school principle by any chance?

    Just curious, did the popular Korean rap artiste make any money off his “rage?” Who knew that one day we could actually record, save our rage, make it publically available to the whole world, and people would actually buy it?

    I guess Patrick Henry knew something about it.

  • Joanne

    Somehow, this reminds me of the Woody Allen statment about investing money. I give all my money to my investor, and he invests it till it’s all gone.

    tODD at 7: Nice explanation, interpretation, and excuse. Are you a school principle by any chance?

    Just curious, did the popular Korean rap artiste make any money off his “rage?” Who knew that one day we could actually record, save our rage, make it publically available to the whole world, and people would actually buy it?

    I guess Patrick Henry knew something about it.

  • Joanne

    Principal.

  • Joanne

    Principal.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    DonS (@8), I hope it’s obvious that I’m not actually trying to defend Psy’s literal comment. It was foolish.

    But here’s the thing. The scenario you offer isn’t exactly the same. If your child had made a “blowing up the teacher” drawing, you would demand he apologize because you would consider both the explicit statement, as well as any underlying implicit statements, to be improper.

    In contrast, while Psy has recognized the impropriety inherent in his explicit statement, I’m not sure that he would concede the impropriety of what I infer to be the underlying message of frustration with American military actions, particularly leading to the death of two young Korean bystanders.

    It is a somewhat difficult situation. If he issues a blanket apology, he may appear to be distancing himself from the underlying criticism of Americans. If he issues no apology, he appears to be hypocritically condoning a callousness towards human life that is at the heart of his complaint. And if he issues an apology for the words he chose, but reaffirms the underlying criticism, then many would decry it as a false apology.

    Sure, it would be best for us Americans if he just went ahead and issued a full and complete apology. But I suspect that that preference does not take into consideration the desire to validate the underlying criticism here.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    DonS (@8), I hope it’s obvious that I’m not actually trying to defend Psy’s literal comment. It was foolish.

    But here’s the thing. The scenario you offer isn’t exactly the same. If your child had made a “blowing up the teacher” drawing, you would demand he apologize because you would consider both the explicit statement, as well as any underlying implicit statements, to be improper.

    In contrast, while Psy has recognized the impropriety inherent in his explicit statement, I’m not sure that he would concede the impropriety of what I infer to be the underlying message of frustration with American military actions, particularly leading to the death of two young Korean bystanders.

    It is a somewhat difficult situation. If he issues a blanket apology, he may appear to be distancing himself from the underlying criticism of Americans. If he issues no apology, he appears to be hypocritically condoning a callousness towards human life that is at the heart of his complaint. And if he issues an apology for the words he chose, but reaffirms the underlying criticism, then many would decry it as a false apology.

    Sure, it would be best for us Americans if he just went ahead and issued a full and complete apology. But I suspect that that preference does not take into consideration the desire to validate the underlying criticism here.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    P.C. (@10), please look up tu quoque. Thanks.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    P.C. (@10), please look up tu quoque. Thanks.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Mike (@11), what makes you think he was “opportunistically taking advantage” of Koreans when he made his anti-American statements? On what basis have you concluded that he really wasn’t angry about the matter?

    Joanne (@12), no, I’m not a principal, nor do I think that’s a good option for me. But my wife’s a high-school teacher.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Mike (@11), what makes you think he was “opportunistically taking advantage” of Koreans when he made his anti-American statements? On what basis have you concluded that he really wasn’t angry about the matter?

    Joanne (@12), no, I’m not a principal, nor do I think that’s a good option for me. But my wife’s a high-school teacher.

  • DonS

    tODD @ 14: Isn’t there a middle ground, where Psy explains the context leading to his comment, disavows the comment, but maintains his disapproval/condemnation of the American military actions? That seems more honest than the fake apology route, if indeed he is sorry for advocating the murder of Americans and their families “slowly and painfully”.

    His problem, of course, is that his outrageous and evil response to the American military actions he opposed cost him the moral high ground and any possible credibility for his criticism.

  • DonS

    tODD @ 14: Isn’t there a middle ground, where Psy explains the context leading to his comment, disavows the comment, but maintains his disapproval/condemnation of the American military actions? That seems more honest than the fake apology route, if indeed he is sorry for advocating the murder of Americans and their families “slowly and painfully”.

    His problem, of course, is that his outrageous and evil response to the American military actions he opposed cost him the moral high ground and any possible credibility for his criticism.

  • Patrick kyle

    How come it is only ‘old white guys(and women)’ who are held accountable for the literal meaning of their words?

  • Patrick kyle

    How come it is only ‘old white guys(and women)’ who are held accountable for the literal meaning of their words?

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Patrick (@18), what are you talking about?

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Patrick (@18), what are you talking about?

  • Sara

    I do agree with your overall point, but he does specify which Americans with who, that is, those “who have been torturing Iraqi captive” and those “who order them to torture.”

    While I don’t agree with what he said, I also don’t agree with the war he was protesting. I shared his same sentiments about Americans who sent people to cause the torture of death untold tens and thousands and many say more than ONE MILLION Iraqis, including daughters, mothers, daughters-in-law, fathers (i.e., civilians killed because of the fighting).

  • Sara

    I do agree with your overall point, but he does specify which Americans with who, that is, those “who have been torturing Iraqi captive” and those “who order them to torture.”

    While I don’t agree with what he said, I also don’t agree with the war he was protesting. I shared his same sentiments about Americans who sent people to cause the torture of death untold tens and thousands and many say more than ONE MILLION Iraqis, including daughters, mothers, daughters-in-law, fathers (i.e., civilians killed because of the fighting).