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