The craze of Model United Nations conferences, or MUNs, in school, gives way to Parliamentary Debates in college. While the two have merits, both miss out on a lot.
Recently, I was invited by my school to judge one of the committees for our intra-school Model UN conference. Going back into that simulation mode and seeing students as young as seventh-graders try to grapple with pressing questions of our times made me think. Will this activity give these students what it promises?
If my experience is any indication, the answer is yes and no. True, MUNs did play a vital role in shaping my interests – so much so that I still credit them for nudging me to venture more into the field of politics and social sciences. They refined my debating skills, exposed me to a bunch of new information, and somewhere – though this seems contrary to how MUNs actually play out – taught me that there is more to activities and challenges than awards.
But there are some glaring shortcomings to what MUNs can achieve. It is a little absurd to think that school students can familiarise themselves with hundreds of treaties and charters of international and domestic laws. It is true that not all such laws ever come into play at any one specific conference and one can get by those two-three days if they just read up the relevant pieces of legislation. But there remains a big risk of people misrepresenting and arguing with the wrong facts, for which they cannot be fully blamed either, because it is quite impossible to know everything at this age.
Of course, there are many people who still excel at the activity. A few get by in some or the other way; some actually make the effort to understand these nuances of international affairs and outperform others with their skills. Yet, even they face certain other shortcomings, which are basically built into how we do MUNs. Speeches of one or two minutes barely allow anyone to get into the depth of things and argue effectively. Because of the format, there isn’t a lot of scope for back-and-forth engagement between opposing sides. Beyond this, MUN procedures do not give enough time for the participants to lobby with each other and negotiate – something that should be the core focus of the activity. Some of the more dominant delegates are usually able to manipulate whatever little informal lobbying time the committee actually gets. However, some formats actually – and rightfully – deviate from this norm. My first MUN was heavily focussed on lobbying and negotiating, where even our moderators helped us in making sound documents. That went on to become of the best MUNs I ever did.
College brought me to this phenomenon of Parliamentary Debates. There is no comparison between the level of debating that PDs and MUNs offer; the former is leagues ahead. PDs do not require people to read hundreds of pages of international law. They rely a lot more on the debating skills of the participants and, of course, people who keep reading and acquiring more and more knowledge stand to do better.
But where MUNs score a point over PDs is in their overall discipline and decorum. College debates are infamously unpunctual. While sometimes genuine unavoidable reasons account for the delays, often it’s simply because people don’t show up on time. It is not rare for tournaments to run till very late in the night. Even in debate rooms, things sometimes get hostile, unhealthily aggressive and toxic. MUNs at least largely stick to a schedule and maintain a level of decorum.
A personal quibble that I also have with PDs is how they at times seem to be distant from the reality. Some motions might make one wonder if there even is a point in discussing them. Others see people using all kinds of buzzwords about oppression, all in the comfort of an air-conditioned room. It’s not their fault that they are privileged, nor does it take away their right to speak about oppression, but it makes me wonder what credibility we have to talk about it without probably having experienced it. The elitism of the circuit – perhaps the activity itself – coupled with what debaters actually talk about presents a contrasting irony.
Above everything else, both MUNs and PDs bear one inexcusable failure. Countless people in both these circuits, often some of the more accomplished ones, have been named in various cases of sexual harassment and worse. For all their talk of gender equality and oppression, the circuits have not been able to create a space safe enough for everyone. Even though voices are raised against such offences and offenders, the fact remains that many such incidents have already happened and have not stopped by any measure either. The circuits will have to confront these ugly realities.
Image credits – ED Times