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It’s time to do more than just ditch ‘The Bad Apple Defense.’

We need to talk about bad apples — but we need to do it differently.

Four years ago, I wrote what felt like a strongly worded open letter to the newly elected President Trump. I did not hesitate to call out his racism or misogyny, or mask my disappointment that America had failed to elect its first woman leader, who was — love her or hate her — unquestionably more qualified to lead the world’s biggest superpower.

And I remember thinking at the time, have I gone a tad too far? Am I giving in to emotionally-driven hyperbole?

Oh, Stephania of 2016, how naive you were. It’s been four years of “Did that really happen? How could this possibly get worse?” followed quickly by, “This, this is how it gets worse.” I am now beyond eloquent rage. A list of all the ineptitude and horror delivered by Trump and his regime during his first term would take up an entire article (if that’s too triggering, try this delightful song version instead); in the last week alone, we’ve seen police pepper-spraying peaceful voting marches and a Trump caravan attempting to run a Biden campaign bus off the highway.  

And someone, somewhere, is rationalizing that these are the acts of a few bad apples, and not indicative of his supporters as a whole.

It’s an excuse I’ve heard far too many times over the course of 2020. In a year in which we’ve had a nearly global reckoning on institutional racism, and plenty of proof of the toll it takes, there has been no shortage of talking heads explaining that the issue is actually just a few bad apples. Trump himself said it in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, and again during his visit to Kenosha after the shooting of Jacob Blake

And before I let Canadian exceptionalism rear its ugly head, let’s be clear that politicians and other public leaders have made the same claims here, and some have been relying on this defense for a long time. There’s plenty of evidence to show, as one recent survey did, that Canadians themselves “are more likely to view racial discrimination as the attitudes and actions of individuals, not a systemic issue embedded in Canadian institutions.” That’s fancy talk for ‘blame the bad apples.’ 

It’s not only wrong, it’s dangerous to assume that the problem is contained to this small group — and you only need to look as far as the origin of the saying to see why. For the past few decades, ‘bad apples’ have become most often used to denote a handful of people behaving unacceptably, thereby negatively affecting the reputation of the community or institution they belong to. That entirely eliminates the latter half of the phrase, which points out that these bad apples have the capacity to make an entire bunch rotten. (If you want to really dig into the history, the first recording dates all the way back to 1340, written as “A rotten apple quickly infects its neighbor.”)

There’s been plenty of think pieces written about how the ‘bad apples’ saying has morphed over the years, but here’s the part that I don’t think we pay enough attention to: pointing out how the meaning has morphed is about as effective as saying ‘the system is the problem’, as if stating what should be obvious is somehow the solution. 

It doesn’t matter if we recognize that a few bad apples can spoil the bunch, if we don’t actually take that as a call to action to change the system so that it no longer allows for bad apples to thrive or survive. 

Take the case of Donald Trump. It is not hyperbole to say he is one of the most rotten and infectious apples we’ve seen in modern times. (If you think his putrefaction is contained to the US, let me tell you about what it was like to watch a caravan of maskless Canadians, waving QAnon and Trump flags, drive down Yonge street.) If the community he belongs to does not vote him in the trash heap where he belongs, I shudder to think of what will happen to the world in the next four years (or more, if you listen to Trump).