La La Land and the Problem of Tolerance

La La Land and the Problem of Tolerance

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Yesterday Annie and I went to the cinema to see La La Land. Everyone seemed to be talking about it lately, so we thought we’d better go and check it out.

There was a particular line in it which caught my attention. In a scene where the two lead characters are getting to know each other, Ryan Gosling’s character Seb talks about his dream of starting a jazz club on the site of a previously famous club. He laments the fact that it has now become a “samba/tapas” place. Emma Stone’s character Mia asks what that is, to which Seb replies, “It’s just what L.A. is like; they worship everything and value nothing.”

In this particular example, the club Seb wants to own is trying to do two things at an average level, rather than doing one thing to a high standard. Seb feels that this is a reason for the demise of jazz as a style of music and as a culture. His observation is profound when you think about our society today.

One of our British values most commonly referred to is tolerance. On the face of it, tolerance appears to be a very good thing. It’s about the freedom from persecution, which is an admirable value for a society. However, tolerance can be taken too far, to the point where it loses its inherent value. We also discover that tolerance is incompatible with many of the world views which are ‘tolerated’ in our society, since there are fundamental disagreements between them.

As Seb rightly points out in La La Land, if we worship everything, we end up valuing nothing. For instance, there has been a trend in school sports competitions for there to be no winner or loser. This is an admirable attempt to protect children from the disappointment that comes with losing and the arrogance that can come from winning. However, it has been seen that every child receiving an award for taking part removes the sense of value in the competition. Rather than every child feeling like a winner, every child feels defeated and undervalued. There is merit in losing but knowing that you tried your hardest.

The more sinister consequence of our tolerance is the rise in so-called “post truth.” Since any opinion is tolerated, there is now no need for facts. Michael Gove famously said during the EU Referendum that the British public were “sick of experts.” While the media ridiculed this idea, he was proven right by the referendum result, in which the public defied the advice of all the experts and voted to leave the EU. It seems that many people are no longer interested in facts and evidence, but rather in whose opinion seems best at the time.

This tolerance has a huge impact on religious faith as well. It can no longer be said that Britain is a Christian country (I happen to think this is a very good thing. I’ll explain why in a future post), although some still try. Seb’s statement can be applied literally to faith. If we worship everything, then we value nothing. In other words, if every religion is equally true, none of them are true. This is where our definition of tolerance ought to change. There should be absolutely no room for religious persecution in our society, so if tolerance means protection from persecution then it is an appropriate value for our country. However, if our definition of tolerance leads us to essentially dismiss all religious faith as equally true (and therefore equally untrue) we’re ironically holding a very intolerant viewpoint towards religious faith.

Seb’s proposed solution to the samba/tapas problem was to open his own jazz club. He dreamt of demonstrating to people the value of jazz music by inviting them into a place where they could experience the joy of those playing it.

Jesus made a bold claim which has at its root a similar goal to Seb’s. He said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6). He also said, “I have come that you may have life, and life in all its fullness.” (John 10:10).

Jesus’ invitation to us all is to come to Him and experience what life is all about. Like Seb, who sees a city of people who don’t like jazz and invites them to experience jazz how it should be, Jesus invites you to discover what living life to the full really means. Will you accept his invitation?

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