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Friday, July 26, 2013

One Last Time, With Decorum

I learnt about the concept of a Model United Nations conference, or MUN, as a kid. I think I was 10 when my sister's friends needed my help to record BBC clips of the then-unfolding Balkan crisis on our old VCR, an arcane device whose operations only I had deciphered (since my regular doses of Chaplin and Tom & Jerry depended on it). I'm not sure I followed what exactly they wanted it for back then - but it sounded like fun, and they certainly looked like they were having a lot of fun setting it up. Three years later, when my school decided to put together its own conference, I jumped at the chance to participate.

In the 12+ years since then, my experience of "MUNning" can only be described as "addictive". (I tried stopping once, five years ago. Didn't last, though, and I'm glad!) This is easily explained. Suppose you are (or think you are, or would like to appear to be) interested in debating, and also fond of international relations, geopolitics, geoeconomics and sundry other long words you barely understand. What's not to like about a chance to spend two or three days exploring those interests, while wearing shiny formals (which, as a kid, you'd never get to show off to your friends otherwise), with a fun party or two thrown in? "Sapiosexual" wasn't a word when we started - but if you identify as one, then this kind of event is pretty much your only chance of meeting a whole bunch of like-minded people (and in many cases, also your only chance at a social life at all). The best part? You can successfully pretend that it's utterly serious business.

With the profusion - it's practically exponential growth - of MUNs across the country, it's a pretense I've had to keep up a lot. This is usually when I'm asked to elaborate on what an MUN involves, and why it's a good thing, etc. While I answer when I must, it's a bad idea to be taken in by your own sales pitch - so I still prefer to brush those questions aside, pleading only that I really like doing them, and slipping away before the serious questioner realises just how much utter tomfoolery we're actually up to (in the guise of "co-curricular educational enhancement", of course).

I'm ready to hang up my placard, though, and that brings the liberty of not having to keep up the image. Which makes this a good time to stop dodging and - for once - try answering sincerely. I'll still use the same disclaimer: this comes from my experience, so it's my view of the format. Please read in the air-quotes every time I say "fact".

First, What is an MUN?
All it is, is a simulation. It works to the extent that the simulation succeeds. This requires from participants a measure of collaborative enthusiasm - which stretches to being reasonably well-prepared for their roles, as diplomats. More importantly, it requires something any Bollywood fan should have a lot of practice doing: willing suspension of disbelief. When these elements come together, you get a deeply engaging experience which is (simultaneously) an exceptional learning tool and the most fun I've had in my life. I think part of the reason I loved it was because I'm a gaming addict - and this is really just a large-scale, collaborative, alternate reality game. (Also, I love the sound of my own voice, and it let me talk. A lot. And I love cartoon-illustrated ties, and it let me wear them. A lot. But yeah, mostly, the simulation.)

There's an obvious corollary: where the simulation doesn't succeed, it's a whole lot less fun. And it takes just one skeptic, one false note - or even just one sung with less gusto than the rest - to burst that bubble. So it takes an open mind to take up the event, and it takes a measure of research. Anyone unable or unwilling to offer those two, won't have the same experience I'm talking about. In which case they may never get the sense of what brought me back, and I'm afraid that's a self-reinforcing sentiment - potentially, an unbridgeable chasm. This is why, at the end of any conference, the greatest pleasure is to hear someone ask when they can do this again, and to hear that familiar strain of enthusiasm in their voice when they ask.

Second, why is a MUN a good thing?
Because it's a fun way to learn new things, meet new people, and reconnect with old friends.

It really is that simple. A simulation isn't reality - or, to be more precise, simulations end, and then we return to the real world. That is, not only is it not something of the real world, it isn't even designed to be that way. And, unfortunately, this is what the sales pitch tends to gloss over, or rather, this gap is precisely where the sales pitch tends to start. In fact, I should say "sales pitches", because I've seen at least two - one for people who aren't part of our world yet, and the other for people who've taken that plunge.

The former is the easy one - it gives you super-awesome skills, super-shiny certificates! True enough, but only so far as it goes. MUN to build up debating skills? Sure, but there's lots of ways to do that - including, umm, debates. Ditto for public speaking. Ditto for research. Ditto for negotiation. What MUN has going for it is that it combines all these into one coherent and rewarding format - but that's it. As for the certificates, and all other adds-gloss-to-dull-CV claims, the only time I've seen people impressed is when they're looking for chairs for their own MUN conference. Till date, I can't think of a single person who's gained in a context outside MUN any benefit from being awesome at MUNs. Picture yourself explaining what you did as a delegate at your last conference to your potential employer at a job interview, and you'll see why. (Of course, as conferences mushroom, maybe your future employer will also be someone who was an enthusiast, and it would actually work in your favour. Not something I'd bet on, but you never know!)

But hey, sundry authorities must be convinced, right? I was lucky - my parents never actually asked me why I wanted to do any particular MUN, my schools enthusiastically endorsed the concept, and college was never so strict that I couldn't just take a couple of days off if I wanted. For the rest, I'm actually quite proud of my variant of this pitch. Just remember: don't buy into your own schtick.

The other pitch, though - the one for people already into MUNning - is the one I have trouble understanding. The sale's been made, so the product ought to speak for itself, no? Still, various  forms of P.R. exercises continue. For anyone's who's bought into them, well - everybody's entitled to their own delusions, and to preach them to their heart's content, but I can't say I've ever had much patience for these. My experience is that they spawn meaningless debates, not susceptible to resolution except by Gordian Knot.

A representative sample of these ideas would include: "we must have stringent procedure", "we must maintain fidelity to the UN / the Charter / <insert document/institution here>" , "we must have objective marking systems" (for awards, or for selecting chairs), "awards are important" and the entire concept of "seniority". (A more recent invention is the idea of different "circuits" in the country.)

To reiterate, and re-emphasize: it's a simulation. The only rules you have to be faithful to are the ones you set for yourself. Obviously, they will vary given different events and contexts. The only test is whether something facilitates debate (good) or disrupts it (bad). IF these correspond to somebody's notion of the actual UN or any of its institutions, great. If not, still great!

By design, this simulation leaves most things at the discretion of the chair - which, to be objective, would have to involve comparison with some external, inflexible standard. And we really don't have those, just guidelines (e.g. "delegates should receive awards corresponding to how well they influenced committee").So the tests are whether someone is fair and impartial (good) or letting their own biases affect their conduct and judgment (bad), and whether they facilitate debate (good), direct it (try not to) or can't control it (bad). Subjective perceptions are built in and unavoidable anywhere somebody appraised you based on their opinion of what you said or wrote - trying to hide this in numbers is just window-dressing!

Beyond this, I'd be hard pressed to say in what manner any form of procedure, any chair or any delegate is better or worse than another. Each has their own strengths, and some are more suitable for a given situation than others (which is how I'd see differences between "circuits".) Given fair competition, an award reflects that - on balance - there is a degree of congruence between what the chair and the committee see as suitable and what the award-winner did. A track record of awards suggests an ability to achieve such congruence with some consistency, and better than the competition - but the context is always dynamic and evolving, and each new event is a clean slate as far as competition there is concerned.

Then the one I particularly don't get: "seniority". I'm always puzzled when people call me a "senior MUNner". (I suspect - with good reason - that they're just calling me old.) I can't see the relevance of my having started doing MUNs before or after someone else, or of having done more or less conferences than them, or of having been in a different position (delegate, chair, Sec-Gen, whatever) in any one, to the quality of the collaborative endeavour that will be the next committee in which I participate. And I've laughed out loud when someone suggested to me that you work hard as a delegate to get awards to get to being a chair, and that it's somehow inappropriate or insulting for someone less experienced to occupy a "higher" post. On a personal note, I find being a delegate WAY more enjoyable than chairing (and I've only ever met ONE person who genuinely felt the opposite). Besides, I'm there because I want to be part of that committee, in that event - the capacity in which I participate is a minscule consideration.

On a more general note - really? I have put-on-shiny-formals-and-pretended-to-control-a-bunch-of-other-kids-in-formals more often than you, and this makes me "senior" / more entitled to do it again as opposed to you? Losing track of the simulation/real world distinction, are we? Dont' get me wrong - while in a conference, I take my role VERY seriously. Outside it, though, I don't even see the point of talking about it. "I was Secretary-General of ___MUN" ranks about the same level as saying "I once taught my class math", and somewhere below "I feed stray dogs every weekend." - it was fun when it happened, and hopefully even educational, but the halo faded away right after. I'll reserve my respect for somebody doing lasting good. Not that I doubt you are too, in your own way - just, this isn't it.

I'm inclined to believe (with much sadness) that this concern - with "establishing merit", as it were - has come into being after conferences began being sponsored, which means that there is a prospect of cash prizes, and usually the guarantee of some kind of honorarium for a chair. We protested vehemently against our school's conference getting sponsors, because unfortunately it shifts the focus from the event to the prize, and skews a lot of people's priorities. "Objective scoring" or ranking or listing etc., in particular, was something I never heard about until something was staked on the outcome of the process. ("We liked him/her better" or "S/he was more impressive" were normal and entirely legitimate responses. It's still my feedback when asked about awards.) So now there's a mix of people who are there because they want to be there, and people who are there because they have something at stake - and that tends to turn competition ugly. I can scarcely complain about conferences paying out money - I've done well enough for myself, and it certainly has let me contemplate trips which I would never be able to afford on my own - but I'm conscious of what it does to the quality of the simulation, and I can't say that I like it. The best I can offer is: go if you can afford it, and once there, once "in role", forget about any awards, monetary or otherwise.

How then - especially after that last rant - to answer the usual question: should you do an MUN?
I think an objective and brief answer would be: If you have nothing better to do.

I'm sorry if that sounds harsh, but it really is that simple. If you're looking for ways to make a serious impact on the world, or a way to make a decent living, or a way to develop relevant skills for future employment, or a way to buff up your CV, or even something like a real-world experience of diplomacy and international relations, don't bother. There's thousands of more efficient ways to do all of those, and only a small chance you'll achieve them here. (I'm also sorry if this sounds like I'm disillusioned - which I'm not, because, you know, didn't particularly harbour illusions from the outset.)

If, on the other hand, you're looking for a deeply immersive experience, with the chance to explore areas of knowledge you may never otherwise encounter, in the company of congenial and like-minded souls, with plenty of humour and enjoyment on the side - dive in! I can promise it'll be a heck of a ride. It's let me put myself in the shoes of a diplomat often enough that I'm reasonably certain I have a genuine interest in that line of work, enough that I'm now actually trying to make it a career. It's taken me across India, and on three amazing trips - to Boston, Lahore and Singapore - with delightful companions, and generally ensured fun times wherever I went. Most importantly, it's given me - a confessed, even avowed, introvert - an amazing number of exceptionally good friends around the world (and a huge store of embarrassing stories and inside jokes to share with them).

One of these friends coined a term for this network, which I've shamelessly appropriated ever since I heard it - he calls it the comMUNity. (Thank you, Suryadeep.) It's a vibrant, thriving and expanding group of amazing people, and it encompasses all kinds. You're bound to find people you like, and the more you explore, the more links you'll find. (Turned out, Suryadeep's grandfather and my grand-uncle served together in the Indian Army. I've come to expect this kind of small-world phenomenon by now.) It's also a powerful resource: I can, for instance, call on local knowledge/resources/help in any city I visit now, but I mean something far more profound. Without exaggeration, the vast majority of my defining experiences of the past decade had their origins in the comMUNity - and the vast majority of those were good experiences, at that! And, if I were to hazard a prediction, it will become inestimably more powerful, as people who share these bonds take on increasingly important roles and challenges.

So my own answer isn't the objective one (and it sure as heck ain't brief).
1. Do it, to see if you enjoy it.
2. Keep doing it, for as long as you're having fun.
3. Stop when one of two things happens: that spark isn't there anymore, or something better (whether that means more fun, or with more real-world impact) comes up.

Don't come looking for anything more profound. That way, you might just find it. And even if you don't - as I cannot overemphasize - there'll always be the friends you make. In other words, while I can think of better things I could have done with my time, I'm utterly unable to think of anything that would have been as much fun.

So long, "Indian MUN circuit". It's been unreal.
And this time, it's not au revoirAlvida, perhaps?

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