Reliably, whenever issues of sexism, racism, and prejudice appear, so too does the phrase “a few bad apples.” University professors are harassing their students, but universities and media hasten to remind us that they are just a few bad apples. Police officers are abusing the people they are supposed to protect and serve, but mostly when those people are black—still, it’s a few bad apples.
“A few bad apples” is in-group language. It’s what you say when you identify with the group in question, and you just can’t believe anything bad about that group because it would also mean something bad about yourself. It is, in essence, group-level denial: that person did something I can’t be associated with, so that must mean they don’t really represent my group.
Have you noticed that “a few bad apples” only seem to exist in privileged majorities? If it’s an issue of racism, white people assure you that it’s just a few bad apples. If it’s an issue of sexism, men assure you it’s a few bad apples. If it is an issue of abuse in an institution, the spokespeople of the institution are quick to give a statement—a few bad apples.
Equally telling is that the phrase is rarely invoked to discuss outsiders. The same people who assure you that there are only “a few bad apples” in the police departments across the United States are quick to say we should fear Syrian refugees because there might be terrorists hiding in their midst, or to say we should fear Muslims because of the actions of a few extremists.
But of course they don’t use it to think about the groups they’re afraid of. From outside a group, you can’t easily tell who’s a member—you just know who says they are. You can’t know whether a person who says they are a Christian is a “real” Christian or not, you just know they said you were going to hell because you loved someone they didn’t approve of. You can’t tell if the cop who pulls you over did it because they saw your broken taillight, or because they saw your black skin. You can’t tell if the professor who calls you to his office wants to help you or help himself.
The trouble with “a few bad apples” is its essential narcissism. It protects your self-image, but ignores the lived experience of other people. No, groups shouldn’t be defined by their worst members, but pretending those people don’t belong in your group misses the whole problem. Saying it was “a few bad apples” solves only one thing: your discomfort. It does jack shit for the people who have to deal with your group from the other side.
The real experience, the experience of everyone on the other side of these issues, and the experience that matters the most, is the bit that most everyone who uses this phrase seems to forget: the second half.
For everyone on the receiving end, a few bad apples spoil the bunch.
Image Credit: Thomas Teichert
Wow! This one hit me upside of the head!! I have done exactly what you have said here. Don’t want to admit that most people in my particular ‘group’ are prejudiced against LGBT+ people. And even if they weren’t, you are right! One rotten potato will spread its rottenness to the whole bag if left long enough! One rotten tomato will cause the others to rot if the rotten one isn’t removed. Yet, a group of people should not be judged by the sins of the few either! There is wisdom in the saying “Judge not lest you be judged by the same standards you judge others”. The point to all this is that bad things should not be excused. Period! Call it for what it is. Cops should not be pulling people over because of the color of their skin. People shouldn’t be shunned because of their faith. People shouldn’t be shunned because of their sexual orientation either. Jesus called for a love that goes beyond color, race, orientation, and economic standing. And even if someone doesn’t believe in a higher power, common decency dictates this kindness. We need to all look at knee-jerk reactions in ourselves whenever our emotional security in who we are feels threatened.
This is a great post. Dr. Phillip Zimbardo, a highly regarded psychologist, likes to say that it’s the barrel that corrupts the apple: not the other way around. Essentially this means that people don’t just do bad things because there’s something wrong with them, but because there’s something wrong with the system they’re embedded in. Blaming “a few bad apples” for the system’s failures means the conditions that gave rise to such abuses will continue unaltered.
Here’s a TED talk on the matter:
Good point; I think it likely goes both ways, with people corrupting a system and the system encouraging corruption as well. Self-reinforcing feedback loop. I’m not surprised Zimbardo is focusing on inputs from the system side given his research, though.
LikeLiked by 1 person
It definitely goes both ways. But I feel like the system part tends to get downplayed when things go wrong; at least by the in-group. You’ve done a good job of describing some of the reasons why in this post.
[…] like “there is more crime in black neighborhoods so police are needed there” or “there are a few bad apples, but the police need the freedom to act” or “black people would be safe in encounters with the […]
[…] three points. The problem of police brutality against black Americans is really a problem of a few isolated bad apples, who don’t represent any kind of systemic error (because if they did, that would challenge our […]