Friday, April 10, 2015

Roll Out the Barrel

In everything, you have bad apples. This is just one bad apple at this time that - you know, that's cast a very negative situation on all police officers.
Charleston County Councilman Teddie Pryor Sr.
S.C. Shooting: Isolated Incident Or Symptom Of Bigger Problems?
I had been expecting a bad apple comment to surface in the context of the shooting of Walter Scott, because, as National Public Radio's Geoff Nunberg once pointed out:
Back then, nobody ever talked about "just a few bad apples" or "only a few rotten apples" — the whole point was that even one was enough to taint the group. These days, those are the phrases people use to imply that some misdeeds were an isolated incident — a couple of rogue cops, a handful of unprincipled loan officers, two or three sociopathic soldiers. Then there's the version that goes, "There are always going to be a few bad apples." That's a counsel of moral realism: as in, there's evil in the world; get over it.
Bad Apple Proverbs: There's One In Every Bunch
The two conflicting meanings of bad apples, as an infectious blight that ruined everything with its poisonous influence (the original meaning) or as wrongheaded individuals who aren't indicative of greater issues, both miss the point in this case. In the current usage, calling someone a bad apple is basically scapegoating them - making them out to be the source of the problem. Throw them under the bus, and everything's fine. And the binary condition that's often suggested, that a person is either "good" or "bad," plays into this. When we call someone out as a bad apple, and especially when we're intending to say that they don't reflect the rest of us, we're separating them from us. We're placing them on the other side of a line that we've drawn in our heads.

But this isn't the way people work. Simply calling out Officer Michael Slager as a violent, racist, bad cop doesn't automagically make anyone who isn't Michael Slager into a peaceful, egalitarian, upstanding citizen. There is a continuum of attitudes and behaviors that each of us lives on, and there isn't an objective bright line of a propensity to answer difficulties with force that makes one "violent," a willingness to judge based on appearances that makes one a "racist" or a level of disrespect for the rules that makes one "bad." But despite the fact that few people would be able to describe such lines to you (and perhaps even fewer would agree on where they would be drawn) it's easy to fall back into the old habit of taking someone who's clearly beyond the pale (or was at least caught on video acting that way) and using the fact that they must be on the wrong side of the line to decide that the rest of us are on the correct side of it.

It makes for a much neater, and more predictable, world, but it blinds us to the way the world around us really works.

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