Only Shades of Gray: A Critique of Moral Relativism in a Monkees Song?

There is a song about the sadness of moral relativism in an unusual place: “The Greatest Hits of the Monkees.” Some who are old enough may remember growing up with the songs of the Monkees. I confess their song “Only Shades of Gray” was not one I remember well from those days. But it is a fascinating song about moral relativism. Some think it’s just a song about growing up. But to most it speaks of a time when things were more certain and compares it to these more modern times when it seems everything is disputed and up for grabs, no more black and white, only shades of gray. It is all the more poignant that the song was written in the turbulent 60s and perhaps represented the anxiety generated by those times when just about everything was being thrown overboard.

Now I know that it is wrong to point any particular age as the “golden age.” Scripture itself warns against this: Do not say: How is it that former times were better than these? For it is not in wisdom that you speak this (Ecclesiastes 7:10). I am also aware that not everyone feels the same about the “good old days.” For some they were not all that good. We should not forget the terrible wars of the early half of the 20th Century. Further, I serve in a parish that is predominantly African American and for many of my parishioners previous days featured “Jim Crow” laws, disenfranchisement, lynching and enforced segregation.

And yet, it remains also true that some fifty years ago we had a much wider consensus on basic moral teachings and appropriate behaviors. Pre-marital sex was considered gravely wrong and guarded against. Remember chaperons and separate dormitory facilities? Easy divorce and remarriage was considered wrong. Abortion was illegal, it never even entered our minds to give children contraceptives. There was also strong consensus against homosexual activity. Families were larger and most were intact. There was also a general appreciation of the role of faith and prayer in American life. I could go on but perhaps this is enough.

Here too I can hear the objections: “We might have had those standards but we didn’t live them well….Things went on behind the scenes, families weren’t perfect, many kids still had sex etc. etc….” But I will respond by saying, At least we had those standards and saw them as truths to be respected. It is an extreme measure, a kind of nihilism, to say that since we do not live up to our standards perfectly we should not have them at all.

And I also know we were more wrong about some things in the past. We were more racist and less open to legitimate diversity, less concerned about pollution. But here too it is extreme to say that because we were wrong about some things in the past the whole thing should be thrown out. Why not keep the best and purify what is needed?

So here we are today, is a radically relativistic time where there is less and less agreement about the most basic of moral issues. And, without a common basis for discussion, such as Natural Law, or the Judeo-Christian worldview we are left to a battle of wills, an increasing power struggle where the one who shouts the loudest, has the most money, wins an election or has the most access wins, at least for the moment. Reason and principles increasingly do not transcend political, economic and social distinctions. There are fewer and fewer shared values that every one agrees on no matter what their party or background. Whatever our struggles of the past, we used to agree on more. Many of those certainties have been replaced by a wide presumption that everything is just shades of gray.

Listen to the song. Don’t forget my disclaimers. I do not propose a simplistic old=good; new=bad scenario. I just write to provoke thought. Please feel free to comment. I couldn’t find a good video of the Monkees performing the song (I think copyright may be involved) so I have included a group that sings it a lot like the Monkees did. First the words, then the video.

When the world and I were young, just yesterday
Life was such a simple game a child could play

It was easy then to tell right from wrong
Easy then to tell weak from strong
When a man should stand and fight
Or just go along

But today, there is no day or night
Today, there is no dark or light
Today, there is no black or white
Only shades of gray

I remember when the answer seemed so clear
We had never lived with doubt, or tasted fear

It was easy then to tell truth from lies
Selling out from compromise
Who to love and who to hate
The foolish from the wise

It was easy then to know what was fair
When to keep and when to share
How much to protect your heart
And how much to care

Source: Archdiocese of Washington

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One Response to Only Shades of Gray: A Critique of Moral Relativism in a Monkees Song?

  1. Ben Yanke says:

    Very interesting…

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