Harry Reid and the Case Against Adopting Expansive Definitions of Racism, Round II

Conservative commentator Melissa Clouthier responds to my post on the Harry Reid incident and the dangers of expanding the definition of racism here. Clouthier admits that Reid’s remarks were not actually racist, but she believes that conservatives should attack them as such anyway:

Noting that President Obama turns the jive on and off is no different than noting that Hillary Clinton does it. It’s no different than noting that Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson do it. It’s no different than noting that major sports and music celebrities (white and black) do it. That is not racist. That’s a fact….

We’ve been there for a long time — if you’re anything but a liberal Democrat. Republicans, conservatives … regular Americans can’t say what Harry Reid said without censure….

Ilya Somin is afraid that Republicans and conservatives will be more harmed by focusing on Reid? Really? What do we have to lose? It’s not like conservatives are ever, ever, ever given the benefit of the doubt about any matter pertaining to race. They are vilified and humiliated. Their political careers are ended at a hint of verbal stumble. That is unlikely to change, unless the left is held to the same impossible standard and forced to decide that maybe the whole racism charge doesn’t serve their purposes anymore….

When the left’s assumptions and standards no longer serve their political purpose — when their own side pays just as much as a conservatives or Republicans would — the standards will vanish. Suddenly, many things too scary to discuss will become part of the lexicon again.

I have already responded to Clouthier in an update to my earlier post. But I thought I’d also put it in a separate post, because the argument Clouthier makes is a very common one, and it’s important to understand its flaws.

I have three points in reply. First, two wrongs don’t make a right. The bad behavior of various liberals on these issues should be criticized, not imitated. Accusing a person of racism is a serious charge. It is deeply unethical to make such an accusation if you know it to be false. Second, Clouthier seems to ignore the fact that there is an ongoing debate over the justification of expansive PC definitions of “racism.” Conservatives and libertarians have made some progress in that debate over the last 15 years. Even the generally liberal media periodically covers and criticizes PC excesses. But our credibility in this discussion depends crucially on living up to our own standards. If we appeal to expansive definitions of racism any time it’s politically convenient to do so, we have no justification for criticizing liberals when they do the same thing.

Finally, it’s highly unlikely that liberals will give up using these tactics merely because an occasional liberal politician like Reid gets tripped up by them. On net, broad definitions of racism will hurt conservatives and libertarians more than liberals because the former more often take positions that can be caricatured as racist under a very broad definition of that concept. Conservatives and libertarians are the ones who struggle to avoid being condemned as racist for criticizing affirmative action, the welfare state, cultural relativism, and so on. If conservatives endorse such tactics by using them against Reid, that will only encourage liberals to continue to use them, since it will be harder for conservatives to resist such efforts in the future.