I do not think it means what you think it means

Singers Noa and Mira Awad plead for peace in the Middle East:

A highly admirable and necessary sentiment.

The problem is that they’re using the wrong song to convey it. The Beatles were fantastically good at undermining the apparent optimism of their songs, and “We Can Work It Out” isn’t quite the plug for harmony that it seems. Listen closely:

Try to see it my way.
Do I have to keep on talking till I can’t go on?
While you see it your way,
Run the risk of knowing that our love may soon be gone…

Think of what you’re saying.
You can get it wrong and still you think that it’s all right.
Think of what I’m saying.
We can work it out and get it straight, or say good night…

Try to see it my way.
Only time will tell if I am right or I am wrong.
While you see it your way,
There’s a chance that we might fall apart before too long.

“We can work it out,” indeed — but only if we do things “my way.” “Your way,” on the other hand, leads to everything falling apart. It’s not a song about compromise; it’s a song about stubbornly insisting on the rightness of your own position. Which is why the bloody struggle in the Middle East is so intractable in the first place. How ironic that a Palestinian and an Israeli (and I am a fan of Noa, I think she’s a brilliant musician) would cheerfully sing these words to each other — believing they’re building a bridge while the lyrics actually have them planting their flags firmly on opposite sides of the divide.

The Beatles, as I’ve said, were really good at this, cleverly undercutting their own message. My other favorite example is “All You Need Is Love,” whose verses apparently overflow with possibility: with love, we can do anything, sing anything, create anything, and everything is possible! But again, listen closely:

There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done.
Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung…

Nothing you can make that can’t be made.
No one you can save that can’t be saved…

Nothing you can know that isn’t known.
Nothing you can see that isn’t shown…

Parse the lyrics and it becomes clear: These aren’t words of encouragement, they’re obvious and ridiculous tautologies (probably intentionally so; oh John, you rascal!). Whatever can be sung, can be sung. Whatever can be known, can be known. And so on. The verses are playful, but essentially meaningless. And yet people hold up this song as a beacon of joyful hope, the same way they insist on playing the stalker anthem “Every Breath You Take” and the tortured ambiguity of “With or Without You” at their weddings.

I love all these songs, by the way. I just find it amusing and rather absurd that people keep misreading what they’re about. For her part, Noa seems to be aware of the Beatles’ tactic, at least when she uses it to slip some irony into her own “come together” song:

You say we need to work together
With love and care for everyone
Without the fighting and the anger
You say the world could be as one

But every time you say “we”
(Love is all we need, yeah yeah yeah)
Do you think about me?

A sobering thought in the middle of an uplifting song. “We” celebrates diversity and shared humanity, but it’s also wary of facile statements calling for harmony and justice: do those who make such declarations truly think about what’s best for everyone — for all the individual me’s that make up the community — or do they merely put the smiling mask of compromise over the real message: “Try to see things my way”? The cause of peace and togetherness is always worth striving for, of course; but it also matters how we achieve that peace, for what reasons, with what words, and with what consequences. Doubtless, though, this lyrical nuance is lost on many fans eager to hold up the song as an unambiguous twin to “We Are The World.”

Perhaps these are all positive examples (negative ones abound, as well) of people ascribing false or imagined meanings to others’ words, in the service of achieving some higher goal. If we wish to use “We Can Work It Out” to express the spirit of harmony, or “Every Breath You Take” to express loving tenderness, or the notion that all religions have compassion at their core (an arguable concept to say the least) to spread the message of interfaith hand-holding, then, fine, I suppose. But at some point we should recognize that these are meanings we impose on the texts, whose authors may or may not have agreed with our intentions and purposes. The clearer we are about that, the better our chances of avoiding the double-edged sword of using external pronouncements to justify our ends.

We are the makers of our meaning. And the compassion we call for doesn’t come from misheard songs or misunderstood faiths; it comes from us.

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