Little Schemer

Van Halen famously insisted on having no brown M&Ms in their bowls backstage. This was not based on a color-based munchies preference, but was rather the band’s way of ensuring their contract had been read.

Another creative, albeit in this case distasteful, use of M&Ms will be the focus of this post. In this instance, the candies are at the center of a hypothetical, foreboding challenge in which a small fraction of them have been poisoned.

Presented a bowl in which, say, three percent of the M&Ms would have fatal results if ingested, a person is rhetorically asked is they would gobble a handful. They clearly would not, so the analogy then compares the sweet treats to Hispanic immigrants, Muslims, AIDS patients, or some other group the speaker holds in low regard. Perhaps only three percent of them are bad apples, but we need to chop down the entire tree since we have no way of knowing which is which. The analogy is usually employed by xenophobes but has sometimes been those on the far left to portray men as monsters that need guarded against.

Regardless of whether it comes from the left, right, or someplace else, the analogy is a mistaken one. When this comparison of people to candies is made, the speaker implies that demonizing an entire population is as legitimate as declining to gobble a handful of potentially deadly tiny round confectionaries.

To see how mistaken that analogy it is, use the point against the person making it. Let’s say someone uses the comparison to insist that we should err of the side of caution and deny entry to persons of Middle Eastern ancestry. Counter that position by saying that while most MAGA hat wearers are not violent hatemongers who would attack minorities, three percent of them might do so. Therefore all persons expressing xenophobic sentiments should be stripped of their citizenship and deported. Unless the proponent is likewise willing to embrace this position, he or she doesn’t truly believe in the comparison.

Further, the analogy implies that we could reduce the risk to zero by avoiding all M&Ms. In the same way that the color-coded National Terrorism Advisory System includes no all-clear and thus keeps us in a perpetual state of worry, the M&Ms in the analogy are meant to cause perpetual concern. The only way to be sure to avoid danger is to avoid them entirely. The candy analogy seems to work because most people would not eat one M&M if there was even a .0001 percent chance of being poisoned. But nothing is ever risk free and no analogy proponent would think we should avoid getting out of bed, an event that kills dozens of people a year.

Also, even if you happen to come across a dangerous member of the derided group, you may well escape unscathed, whereas with the poisoned M&M, death is a certainty for anyone who consumes it. Therefore, the danger posed by the group member is greatly exaggerated when compared with how likely they are to harm a specific person.

Finally, the analogy falls flat since M&Ms all look the same, except for the color difference, and there would be no way of knowing which ones were poisoned. But when it comes to people, background checks and indicators give us a good idea of how dangerous a specific Hispanic, Muslim, or other group member is likely to be.

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