Oratory skills are an indispensable element of a successful Model UN experience. Outstanding delivery has the power to appeal to emotions, persuade, galvanise support and control the general flow of debate. However, there is more to a speech than just its delivery. Several factors come into play, and this article will focus on a facet of one of these factors, so to say.
An unfortunate habit of speakers since time immemorial has been the reliance on fallacies to support argumentation. Model UN delegates have not been spared in this regard, and I can recall a good number of speeches that were inherently flawed, despite the orator’s natural flare for capturing his/her audience.
What are fallacies?
A fallacy is a belief based on unsound reasoning, leading to a contradictory or invalid argument. They come in many forms, however for now it is sufficient to categorise them into two main forms: logical and informal.
According to RationalWiki, a logical fallacy ‘is an error in the logic of an argument that prevents it from being logically valid but does not prevent it from swaying people's minds.’ Put bluntly, the speaker presents an incorrect argument that succeeds in convincing the audience. On the other hand, informal fallacies are arguments that appear to be sound, however upon closer inspection reveals incoherence.
Fallacies are a boon to spin doctors and speakers seeking immediate gain. However they do not come without a cost. Over-reliance on fallacies can unravel arguments in the long-term, and additionally speakers who routinely resort to them expose themselves to criticism from audience members or respondents with an eye (or rather, ear) for detail.
Here are a couple examples of fallacies (both formal and informal) the use of which I've noted over the years:
Red Herring Fallacy (Logical)
The Red Herring is a tactic whereby a speaker attempts to draw the attention of the audience towards a secondary or irrelevant topic. It is typically resorted to in response to questions that make the speaker feel uncomfortable. Take the following example:
Here, “F” has sabotaged the flow of debate by redirecting the audience's attention to an extraneous issue: that of an ongoing war. In such situations, “S” ought to exercise control; impulsive responses play into the opponent's hands as they tend to breathe fire into their arguments, irrespective of their veracity.
Assess the situation and do not counter the Red Herring directly. Instead, play the role of an orchestrator by redirecting the audience back to the principal subject-matter. Any subsequent attempts of the respondent to derail the argument are likely to be met with dismissal from the audience.
Argumentum ad hominem (Informal)
The ad hominem argument is an unfortunate staple of debaters who have little to offer in terms of substance. Speakers evade discussing the subject-matter by attacking their opponent’s character or past actions, otherwise known as a character assassination. This is done with the intention of undermining the credibility of the proponent and fuelling a sense of distrust amongst audience members.
Take the following example:
You may recognise this form of flawed reasoning from other contexts. A common tactic employed in litigation involves lawyers attacking the credibility of witnesses by exposing them as unreliable narrators of facts. The resultant doubt taints the perception of the audience towards the facts recounted by the witness, even if s/he happens to be telling the truth. Perhaps the most famous example in this respect is the testimony of Detective Mark Furhman during the O.J. Simpson trial, who upon cross-examination was shown to have perjured himself on an issue relating to the trial. On being asked about the potential impact of this ad hominem attack, Peter Arnella, a law professor at UCLA, stated the following:
‘That meant, unfortunately, that when police officers and criminalists and others were presenting perhaps quite reliable evidence, physical evidence of guilt, it was easy for jurors to dismiss the probative significance of some of that evidence because they didn't trust the messenger. …’
Ad hominem arguments are not becoming of Model UN delegates and should be avoided at all costs. They are inflammatory and instigate antagonism, as opposed to reconciliation and compromise. Remember, delegates should always pursue diplomatic solutions to difficult questions. This does not mean that a delegate ought to completely compromise his country’s core values. On the contrary, differences in opinion should be made clear to the floor. However, in the event that differences arise, delegates ought to attack the idea and not its proponent.
Proof by verbosity (Logical Fallacy)
Proof by verbosity is an exhausting form of argumentation that seeks to subdue opponents by using arguments that are far too complex for the audience to adequately comprehend. Consequently, respondents are rendered speechless or incapable of rebutting with anything substantial. This gives the impression that the respondent’s position is superficial or poorly researched.
This type of logical fallacy is unfortunately effective, and often pops up on the Model UN circuit. The truth of the matter is that delegates (especially those not forming part of a larger delegation) are randomly assigned committees, which means that they are placed at a comparative disadvantage to those who have the luxury of actively pursuing committees of a particular technical competence. The asymmetry of knowledge is all too apparent in some instances.
Nonetheless, proof by verbosity is not an insurmountable hurdle. Firstly, speakers opting for this approach often get carried away and can easily come across as arrogant. Verbosity has the effect of alienating both your colleagues and the dais.
Secondly, it is crucial that the respondent reminds the audience that verbosity does not equate to correctness. Sure, the proponent may appear to be versant in the subject-matter, but truth be told anyone can resort to technical jargon in order to beef up their speeches.
Don’t be lured into this trap. Draw the attention of your audience to the core principles of the subject. Oftentimes, committees have little opportunity to debate every nook and cranny of each subtopic that is at stake. Lay solid foundations by discussing the broader direction of your policies, and leave the detail to the technocrats.
“After this, therefore because of this" (Logical Fallacy)
Also known as ‘post hoc ergo propter hoc’, this form of argumentation is the pinnacle of fallacious reasoning. It attempts to equate correlation to cause. Take the following example:
line of reasoning is a favourite amongst those speakers who are clutching at
straws. It is typically resorted to when a proponent is struggling to provide a
factual basis to his argumentation. It assumes the existence of two variables:
X (the preceding event) and Y (the subsequent event), and eliminates all other
variables that may leave a tangible impact on the outcome of Y (this is known
as ceteris paribus – all other things
remaining equal). Thus, by tricking the audience into thinking there is causal
relationship, the proponent succeeds in convincing them that X necessarily led
This is clearly incorrect. Post hoc ergo propter hoc is particularly popular in debates marked by the absence of specialist knowledge or attempts at oversimplification. Despite their widespread use, they are generally considered to be pretty ineffective, particularly when addressing a learned audience.
Bonus Round: If-by-whiskey (Logical Fallacy)
The if-by-whiskey is an argument that supports both sides of an issue by using terms that are selectively emotionally sensitive. This is an especially cunning approach that is routinely used to garner support on both sides of the floor. The devil lies in that the speaker plays on the positives of an argument, thereby limiting focus on the negative aspects that may be impossible to reconcile.
Although this is a logical fallacy, it is most certainly tactical, and is a staple of eleventh-hour negotiations. Pay close attention next time a delegate makes an impassioned appeal to the floor to seek consensus through the merger of two or more draft resolutions by pointing out that “both resolutions have their merits”. Unless the various blocs are evenly divided in numbers, one resolution is likely to be subsumed into another.
These are but a few of the many fallacies that are commonly used in everyday life. Although some delegates employ them cunningly, it is generally agreed that fallacies taint arguments and should be avoided at all costs. Resorting to them is only cheating yourself! Keeping these tips in mind, you may now find it easier to observe the behaviour of your fellow delegates, and catch them when they are bluffing.
To many, these fallacies may seem obvious. If they weren’t, and you enjoyed reading this article, then I would like to personally welcome you to the ranks of us nitpickers!