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  • Reverend James Squire

Algorithm



I first encountered this word in a high school trigonometry class. I had to know various algorithms to solve a problem. I loved the class because it was a high-level approach to getting the right answer. Today it is a word that describes various ways in social media that lead us to a specific end of a way of thinking.


Even though Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram indicate that they are not using algorithms to direct us to a particular set of political views, the fact of the matter is that is exactly what they are doing. We are shaped by social media and cable news with the extremes on both sides of the ledger being Fox News and CNN who share a common goal of gaining a like-minded audience that attracts advertisers and money.


Fox News has had a bad week. It has been discovered that several of their talking heads texted Mark Meadows during the insurrection on January 6. Their post January 6 shows worked hard at covering up Trump’s role. It wasn’t until another shoe dropped that Sean Hannity announced as he signed off on his show with the words that “he was going on an unplanned vacation.” I think what changed was something else actually. It changed when a judge indicated that the Dominion Voting Machined Company could go ahead with their billion dollars lawsuit. We know that the owners were content to allow the Carlsons of the world to continue their childish prater, but this is now about serious money.


This is a further example of research found in David Callahan’s book, The Cheating Culture, where given a choice between money and integrity, the owners of Fox will respond to money particularly if they could lose a lot of it. Compared to what Chris Cuomo did by helping his brother navigate his sexual harassment charge, the Fox people are way more involved in news bias than anyone at CNN. It is the difference between lightning (Fox News) and the lightening bug (CNN).


Our democracy hangs over the edge of a cliff in a delicate balance for several reasons. First, our nation no longer believes in the same facts. Trump introduced us to alternative facts which is a fancy way of saying lies. When a nation has different views of what really happened in the history of any country, crisis is just around the corner. When I was studying at St. George’s College in Jerusalem a representative from the PLO gave us his view of the history that has brought us the Middle East Crisis. Since it takes two to tango regarding the crisis, the next night a Jerusalem Rabbi gave us his view of the history. It was like watching two different movies. Add to this that the rabbi thought he was a standup comedian and turned everybody off to his version.


Critical Race Theory is a threat for the same reason. Florida is now passing a law forbidding the teaching of it at any level. Black people want their understanding of the facts of United States history, but it challenges the view of history that we learned in school. It didn’t make any difference that one record of history was about the story of great American lives while Critical Race Theory adds a dimension of not- so great institutions that systematically oppressed black people.


The algorithm of Fox News pointed to unethical decision-making culminating in the cover up of what they knew about January 6 with statements such as “this is hurting us all” from Ingraham, “please get him on tv” from Kilmeade, “ask people to leave the Capitol” texts to Meadows along with members of Congress offering a better way to steal the vote thus ending democracy as we know it.


There is another algorithm that will help us along the path of the moral life. It can even help us to look back and see January 6 through the light of an ethical lens. I always taught my ethics students John Dewey’s five decision making steps for it is a simple ethical algorithm that has stood test of time. Dewey was an American educator and philosopher. Use these steps in your own life and thoughtfully consider each step. If your values are those that reflect the best in humankind, you will never make the decisions made by Trump, Fox News hosts, and various congressional supporters of the Big Steal and January 6.


Dewey believed that reason could lead us to a good end. Step 1 was to list all choices and CONSEQUENCES. STEP 2 is to list ALL the people affected. Step 3 is to practice EMPATHY where you put yourself in the place of all the people affected. Step 4 is to compare the VALUES that will shape your decision such as honesty and altruism. Step 5 is to make the decision and to decide how you would measure it and know that it is the RIGHT one.


Feedback from my students was that these simple steps could be remembered and actually worked for them to avoid such chaos and destruction as seen on January 6.


Dewey wrote: “Many acts are done with no thought of their moral quality, or no thought at all, that is, on impulse. Persons, children and grown-ups alike, often say in justification for some act that turned out badly that they meant well. They took no pains to think out the consequences of what they proposed to do. They kept their minds upon any favorable results that might be fancied to follow, and glossed over or kept from view its undesirable consequences.”


Where was Dewey when we needed him? His ethical algorithm could have resulted in a process that led to reflect the best of humankind and the most noble actions of our nation’s political leaders. We are living the results right now in the division of our country. When I read about the thinking of the January 6 Commission, I can’t help but notice that they are following the wisdom of Dewey. That is the algorithm that will lead us to a better future.

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