the three part test

I am not a lawyer, but there was a time when I wanted to be one, or admired them or something. It might have been the John Grisham thrillers, which are written for (as well as many other groups of people) 13 year old boys and men who think they totally could have been a lawyer. If it wasn’t them, it was probably The West Wing, which is written for 16 year old boys and men who think they totally could have been president.

If I’m really telling the truth, I have to confess that lawyers were the closest thing I could find in real life to the magic wielding characters I loved in fantasy stories. Like wizards, lawyers come in (lawful) good, evil, neutral alignments, memorize incantations in Latin, and the old ones get to wear robes. Is a trial a metaphor for combat, or is combat a metaphor for a trial?

One of the things I like most from legal culture is the idea of the legal test. From the Wikipedia:

Legal tests are often formulated from the logical analysis of a judicial decision or a court order where it appears that a finder of fact or the court made a particular decision after contemplating a well-defined set of circumstances. It is assumed that evaluating any given set of circumstances under a legal test will lead to an unambiguous and repeatable result.

Legal tests, Wikipedia

I love a well-constructed test. At their best, they are a way to cut through all of the distractions, all the stray bits of context that we think are important, in order to get to the really meaningful questions. I’ve been developing a test for myself to help me evaluate my media choices. I call it “Matt’s Three-Part Test for Deciding Whether To Hit Play Next Episode or Get The Fuck Out Now.” Here are the three questions:

  1. How does this make me feel?
  2. How active do I have to be to engage with it?
  3. How does this change my behavior?

Let’s look at a couple of test cases:

  • An episode of Fresh Air about the Muller investigation makes me feel anxious and bad, I listen to it passively, and after I finish the episode it makes me so angry that I go out and send bad and boring tweets, like Donald Trump himself is reading my Twitter feed and he just hadn’t heard from me before deciding to resign.
  • The new season of Queer Eye makes me feel human and connected, when I watch it it makes me think deeply about my own life, and after I finish watching it it gives me motivation to connect with people I love.
  • Reading a genre book from a genre that pushes my buttons—maybe a steamy gay romance or a sci-fi novel or a mystery—makes me feel entertained and relaxed. It might be empty entertainment, but afterwards I feel rested and refreshed.

The wild thing is that sometimes we do choose to read/watch/listen to the thing that makes us feel bad, that doesn’t stimulate us, and that makes us act shitty afterwards. Some social media communities are nothing but toxic circle jerks of feel-bad propaganda, and that includes groups that I feel a closeness to and groups that I feel un-included from. There are times when I feel like using the test—insulating myself from information that makes me feel bad—feels like a real first-world luxury. It seems cruel to decide I don’t want to engage with something upsetting when it’s related to an issue that could use attention. When I’m on the fence, I add this additional question:

  • Right now, does the media I am accessing make me feel empowered to attend to the problems that exist in the spheres where I have influence, or does it make me feel disempowered like my choices don’t matter any nothing can ever get better?

That usually tells me whether I should take on the one more upsetting thing, or whether I should take care of myself so that I can win the battles I am actually in.

How do you decide what to let into your brain?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *