Bleached Virtues, Bleached Vices

A term from linguistics helps explain what makes people tick, like time-bombs.

Posted Nov 04, 2019

In linguistics, a term is bleached when it loses meaning while remaining functional. Take the way people now use the word like as in “I was, like, at that party.” Like is bleached. It no longer means similar but remains functional as an empty space filler, a packing peanut, much like "um."

Lots of words get bleached, especially words for something very good or bad. Awesome, incredible, unbelievable, perfect, gnarly, phat or disastrous, decimated, catastrophic, horrible, bootsy, hoopty. Bleaching is why we cycle through such valenced, loaded, value-laden terms faster than others. They're bleached of meaning so quickly.

Words for emphasis also get bleached. Literally no longer means literally. Absolutely, in fact, in truth, the bottom line, no doubt, really, very, hecka, and hella no longer mean much if anything. They function less like packing peanuts than paperweights, ways to add weight to whatever we proclaim. In their overuse, they get lighter and lighter, down to where we hardly hear them anymore.

Combined like absolutely awesome or absolutely disastrous, you get superlatives, hyperbole, exaggeration, and inflation. When bleached, our once-meaningful ways to talk about what’s absolutely good or bad become meaningless so we have to find new ones. If everything is absolutely awesome then nothing is, so we seek fresher hyperbole, new terms that will likewise become bleached absolute through overuse. And not just overuse but abuse.

Bleached virtue and bleached vice expose two strong and dangerous human appetites:

First, we’d like a simpler black and white world than we’ve got. We’d like to be absolutely certain about what’s absolutely good and absolutely bad.

Second, we’d like what’s absolutely good to be us and what’s absolutely bad to be anyone or anything that gets in our way.

Who wouldn’t? Life is an anxious affair. Self-doubt can be painful and paralyzing, leaving us feeling small and impotent not up to the challenges we face.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to know you were on the side of virtue against vice? And not just to know it but to discover it, as in fiction when the pauper discovers that he or she is really a prince or princess destined to live happily ever after.

We can discover our absolute worth through breakthroughs, insights, epiphanies, revelations that promise us some new iron-clad formula for sorting out virtue vs. vice with us on the side of virtue.

You discover a formula for what virtue and vice really matters. The formula is resonant with what you need at the moment and what you’ve guessed all along given your cultural commitments. It really resonates. The formula tells it like it is.

To add weighty emphasis, the formula gets exaggerated. The virtue isn't just what we need more of now; it’s all we ever needed in the past present and future, the litmus test for virtue against vice: The one true universal virtue is X. The one true universal vice is Y.

For example:

The universal virtue is mindfulness.
The universal virtue is patriotism.

When these formulas were formulated, the virtue-terms had a meaning. Mindfulness is a meditation practice. Patriotism is a readiness to sacrifice for the good of the nation-state. Mindfulness and patriotism had both meaning and function, denotation but also positive connotation. As such they suggest a rule. Mindfulness = absolutely virtuous. Patriotism = absolutely virtuous.

Simple. And inaccurate. But never mind, because we can claim to stick by these virtue-rules easily if we just bleach them. Loosen them up so they can mean anything. That way, whatever we do, we can label it as virtuous.

That’s what happens to virtue and vice words. They get bleached of their meaning. All that’s left is that they’re absolutely good and bad, their connotation remains functional as their denotation gets stretched, diluted and lost.

Once they're bleached, we’ve landed on a highly-functional formula that is hard to resist. Mindful and patriot can mean just about anything now. They’re wild cards. Flash those cards to describe anything and everything you ever do. “I’m truly mindful.” “I’m a true patriot.”

And since they’re names for absolute virtues, they’re also trump cards, words you can flash in a debate to win it instantly or, if not, to feel like you’ve won and to cause others to doubt themselves for being unmindful, unpatriotic.

Just call anything you don’t like “not mindful.” Call anything you do like “mindful.” Just call anything you don’t like “unpatriotic.” Call anything you do like “patriotic.” You become the supreme authority on what's good and bad, always affirming yourself in the process.

Bleached virtues and vices become fluid hard lines. They’re hard lines in that they draw a clear, absolute, hard-line between virtue and vice. They’re fluid in that once the terms are bleached you can move those hard lines anywhere you want.

If you’re anxious enough that you need to compensate by acting like you're eternally mighty, right, and righteous, keep doing whatever you’re doing and just move that hard line so it always encompasses what you do.

Remember Pavlov’s dog? He was trained to salivate at the sound of a bell. We can become like that with our bleached virtue and vice terms. We can ring the bells ourselves. “I’m mindful, not unmindful.” “I’m patriotic, not unpatriotic.” These bells no longer mean anything but that you are about to enjoy the reward of self-affirmation.

The tendency to become Pavlovian with words is probably as old as words themselves. It’s just so simple. You hear a bleached virtue word. You embrace it as describing you, regardless of what it means.

In “Euthyphro,” one of Plato’s dialogues, Socrates asks a guy named Euthyphro for his definition of virtue. Euthyphro replies that virtue is what Euthyphro is doing. Socrates says that he’s not looking for an example of virtue; he wants a definition that encompasses all cases of virtue. Euthyphro gives up on a definition quickly. He’s not really interested in the meaning of the word “virtue.” Undefined, it's functional enough as his badge of honor.  

Most of us aren’t that interested in the meaning of our virtue or vice terms We use them freely without wondering how to define them. People tattoo the word “Integrity” on their chests without giving much thought to what integrity entails. It probably doesn’t entail tattooing it on yourself as though it’s an official seal of approval.

Next time someone labels themselves with a virtue term or you with a vice term, ask them how they define it. As with Euthyphro, it's likely to be the first and last time they wonder.

I’ve asked many locals here in Berkeley, California how they define mindfulness and I've never gotten a clear answer. I’d get a similar response from the self-proclaimed absolute patriots now populating other parts of the U.S. It’s a cultural thing. Virtue and vice buzzwords come and go. 

Here are two tips for resisting bleached virtue and vice terms:

1. When tempted by one of those popular moral formulas with their virtue and vice buzzwords, stay aware of the bleaching. You may be attracted to the terms’ meanings, but chances are the meaning will fade with time. Don't assume the meaning is permanent. Ideological, religious, spiritual, and psychological terms are especially prone to bleaching since they often promise moral absolutes. Bleaching is why we end up with hypocrites, tyrants, and cults touting their absolute virtue while doing whatever they want.

2. Use obverse psychology to counter the tendency to oversimplify down to moral formulas. Flip those terms. When you hear that mindfulness or patriotism is the secret to virtue, think of examples of these virtues becoming a vice.  If mindfulness means being here now, remember the virtue of learning from your past and planning for your future. If patriot means sacrificing for your country, remember the virtue of not jumping on the bandwagon when your country's leaders become foolhardy egomaniacal tyrants. 

Here’s a short video on fluid hard-lining.