Something which I have learned — time and time again — over the past few months has been that language, most importantly rhetoric, is the cornerstone of our society. The concept in itself appears to be simple enough, the idea that our ability to communicate colloquially is important to our daily lives. After all, when we speak to each other, we are exchanging new information and different ideas through our conversations. However, this idea of transferring information is only one part of what rhetoric is. In totality, rhetoric is the art of persuasion, and thus it encompasses more than just regular conversation. It is about changing opinions, changing minds, changing values. This is why rhetoric is so important to our society — the pinnacle of democracy if I dare say — primarily because it is a skill used on a daily basis.
Now, one of the common misconceptions with rhetoric is the negative connotation it holds. Before I knew what rhetoric really was, I (like many other people) often associated rhetoric with the jargon of businessmen or the inflammatory speeches of politicians. However, rhetoric is much more than that as it covers any sort of persuasive speaking. For example, have you ever been at a restaurant and the waitstaff had convinced you to get their “daily special” instead of the lower-cost main entree that you had your eye on? That was rhetoric! Anything that a speaker or writer does to change your opinion is rhetoric. From the infomercials on TV to the politician at the statehouse, to even my writing right here — which should hopefully be changing your views on rhetoric — are all examples of this ancient Greek skill.
Now, you may be asking yourself “why is Oscar going into such a long rant on rhetoric when the title of the blog has nothing to do with the subject?” That is a great question! Now, I could be speaking on the topic because of my time taking AP Language and Composition, or because I recently read a great book on rhetoric called Words Like Loaded Pistols (which I highly recommend) but none of these options would be correct. I speak of this because of my recent applications of the skill while at the National High School Model United Nations (further referred to as NHSMUN) where I was able to practice the skills among peers from around the world. After all, as I had said before, rhetoric is the cornerstone of democracy!
Now, for those of you who are unaware of what Model United Nations is (MUN), it is an internationally observed extracurricular that focuses on solving world problems from the view of the United Nations. Depending on the committee, students focus on writing drafts and finally passing a resolution to whatever global issue they are focusing on. A committee can be anywhere from a few hours to a few days, depending on
the conference you are in. For reference, NHSMUN is a 5-day conference where students meet a total of 5 times for separate four-hour committee sessions. Now, although there are small conferences hosted by high schools are colleges around the country (and in nations abroad) that have different councils ranging from General Assembly to the highly prestigious Crisis Committees, NHSMUN is different because it is an open global conference. Through they run two separate sessions over a period of 15 days, there is still an average of two thousand five hundred students at each session. During this time, they run about sixteen different general assemblies (averaging 90-140 students per delegation) as well as eight specialized committees. For this competition, I was on the one Crisis committee for the conference (which is, arguably, the most elite committee of all). In crisis committees, the work is fast-paced and directives are voted in quickly. Unlike a General Assembly where the topic stays stagnant through, Crisis committees are always changing. One moment you may be dealing with riots in the streets of the capital of Juba, or the next you may have to solve the black market firearms trade that China has put into your country (yes, there were all real things that happened in our sessions). The directives you pass change your committees focus in minutes, meaning that the job act you passed an hour ago may have caused a cholera outbreak five minutes ago because of poor sanitation standards that your fellow ministers forgot to address. To put the strenuous nature of this committee into light even
further, I was working with seventeen other students from around the world (One from Dubai, another from Costa Rica, a few from California and even one from Wheeler School in Providence) to solve the humanitarian violations, famine and ethnic violence issues surrounding the South Sudanese Civil War. Each student was in charge of a different aspect of South Sudan’s government (I was the Ministry of National Security in the Office of the President) as we debated on how to solve the country’s issues.
Now, what is important here is how rhetoric (the thing I talked extraneously about for the first three hundred words or so) alters the perceptions of people in the committee. Keeping in mind, some of these students came to the conference with pre-written opening statements, binders full of research, and months of studying (as in some international schools Model UN can be taken as a course). Thus, as everyone was representing different positions, every person within that committee held different goals or ideas that they held as the most valuable. Thus, rhetoric — the very art of persuasion — was highly important here. Therefore, through five sessions — three of which were back to back as we had a “midnight crisis” lasting from 1am-4am — we worked strenuously to pass different directives in our committee to solve the ever-changing issues. Following the modified parliamentary procedure, we had debates, gave opinions on topics, took part in long filibusters and even changed the minds of people from all across the world. I had even worked hard enough that I had received the delegate “Award of Excellence”, one of only three awards given out in this committee of prestigious students (one was for an outstanding position paper, and the other was for the recognition of passed directives).
To write it into a conclusive statement, rhetoric has a critical role in our lives. My work from Model UN is only one small example of the practice and does not incorporate all the detailed nuances of the trade. Thus, next time someone tries to convince you of something, take a deeper look at how they are doing so. Are they attempting to give you a logical answer, are they appealing to your personal values or emotions? Are they degrading another person or thing to make their solution appear better? Whatever it is, always challenge the persuasion of others, as you may find just how “convincing” some people can be.