I’m behind on bringing this up, but John McCain, senator and one-time presidential candidate, made this tweet, implying that the President of Iran is a monkey. After some agitated feedback, he responded by pointing out that it was a joke. Well, duh.
The problem isn’t that McCain’s made a joke — although I do think it a bit impolitic for a senior senator to openly belittle a sitting head of state, even if that head of state totally sucks. The problem is the joke’s content and the history it interacts with. Hocine Dimerdji explained the point well:
I don’t personally think that McCain tweeted this maliciously, unlike many of the people who pop up on this blog. But he illustrates an important point: it is easy to be racist (or any other kind of offensive) without realizing it. And when that happens, it isn’t enough to just say that it wasn’t offensive; if someone finds something offensive, it is, regardless of intent.
(That’s not to say, of course, that something can’t be more offensive when it’s intentional. Nor should everything offensive be rescinded — the offensiveness of a statement must be weighed against its purpose. My favorite example of this is Joe Welch’s cutting “Have you no sense of decency?” to Joe McCarthy during the Army-McCarthy hearings. Doubtless this is an offensive statement, and yet it is one of the most important in American history.)