Assessing Arguments through Coherence Systems: A “Misunderstanding” during Hurricane Katrina by Martha S. Cheng, Rollins College
The current administration’s tenure has been plagued by accusations of unpreparedness and incompetence in a range of situations; 9/11, Katrina, and Iraq being the most obvious. The media has provided ample opportunity for victims of these crises to condemn the government and for representatives of the government (or their supporters) to respond. Usually, such exchanges present incommensurable positions that place the personal experiences of individuals against government policy and face saving. Underlying these opposing sides are not simply different experiences of a crisis (one immediate and one removed), but also competing ideologies about government and individual responsibility and accountability. We can see how these ideologies play out in mediated crisis discourse by employing coherence systems as a frame for analysis. Coherence systems, a concept drawn from studies of practical reasoning and narrative rationality, refers to the system of beliefs, values, and practices associated with specific situations. Although a broad concept, the nature and characteristics of coherence systems can help us assess conflicting positions in mediated crisis discourse, as in the following example from Hurricane Katrina.
During and after Hurricane Katrina, which hit the Gulf Coast August 29th, 2005, there was constant discussion and debate on news programs about the government’s provision and organization of emergency services. The September 4th episode of NBC’s Meet the Press drew particular attention and reaction. The Gulf Coast was still in the middle of the crisis. The show’s guests included, among others, Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff and Mr. Aaron Broussard, President of Jefferson Parish. Mr. Chertoff fielded questions from Tim Russert, the host, who pressed him to explain Homeland Security’s inadequate response to the disaster. He avoided specific explanations, instead he used vague statements such as “many things did work well, and… some things did not work well” (Transcript for September 4). And he refused to make a conclusion about the government’s performance, saying that the evaluation would come in the future: “We will have time to go back and do an after-action report, but the time right now is to look at what the enormous tasks ahead are” (Transcript for September 4).
After speaking with Chertoff, Russert turned to Broussard and asked him to react . In contrast to Chertoff’s hedging, Broussard made an unqualified accusation: “We have been abandoned by our own country. Hurricane Katrina will go down in history as one of the worst storms ever to hit an American coast, but the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina will go down as one of the worst abandonments of Americans on American soil ever in U.S. history” (Transcript for September 4). He then catalogued numerous failures by FEMA.
This juxtaposition of conflicting perspectives is typical of Meet the Press and other news programs. Thus, this episode may have gone quietly into the archives except that as Broussard continued, he gave an emotional account of the death of the mother of Thomas Rodrique, the head of emergency services for Jefferson Parish.
His mother was trapped in St Bernard nursing home and every day she called him and said, “Are you coming, son? Is somebody coming? And he said “Yeah, Mama, somebody’s coming to get you. Somebody’s coming to get you on Tuesday. Somebody’s coming to get you on Wednesday, Somebody’s coming to get you on Thursday. Somebody’s coming to get you on Friday.” And she drowned Friday night. She drowned Friday night. (Transcript for September 4)
Mr. Broussard broke down in tears while relaying this story and was so emotional that Russert had to go to another guest and did not return to Broussard. The intense delivery of this dramatic story, while the crisis was at its peak, elicited enormous response around the country.
Although Chertoff and his office did not respond to Broussard, MSNBC and some independent blog organizations sought to verify his story and found that the actual sequence of the calls did not follow Mr. Broussard’s account and that the residents of the nursing home died on Monday, August 29th, not Friday September 2nd. A MSNBC.com article on September 27th titled “An emotional moment and a misunderstanding: Story of a mother’s desperate calls from nursing home skewed” revealed the results of their investigation and catalogued the actual sequence of events. Broussard’s critics used these factual inconsistencies to discredit his claim that the federal government abandoned them and were guilty of murder.
Practical Wisdom, Coherence Systems and Verisimilitude
MSNBC’s “correction” of Broussard’s story begs the question, does the fact that Broussard’s story included “details in conflict with the timeline of the tragedy” (An emotional moment) undermine his claim that the federal government abandoned its people? Do we dismiss his story as a misunderstanding fueled by heightened emotion? Typically, we value factual accuracy in argument; in fact, in analytical reasoning we require it: If a premise is not true, the conclusion cannot be true. But I contend that Broussard’s story was not an act of analytical reasoning, but rather practical reasoning, which uses different argumentative standards, and if viewed as such, his claim still stands.
First, how is his argument practical reasoning? Aristotle clearly distinguishes practical knowledge (phronesis or prudence) from scientific knowledge (epistêmê). The latter, the domain of philosophers, concerns universal, demonstrable truths, those things that could not be otherwise. In contrast, phronesis involves the perception of a particular situation in relation to what is good for oneself and others, accompanied by appropriate emotions and action. It deals with the contingencies of everyday personal, social, and political life. Such situations preclude the simple application of rules but rather require the ability to recognize, acknowledge, respond to, pick out salient features of a complex situation…gained only through a long process of living and choosing that develops the agent’s resourcefulness and responsiveness. (Nussbaum 305)
In fact Aristotle carefully avoided laying out any procedure or method when describing practical wisdom. One cannot use a formula or follow a set of rules when faced with particular, contingent matters. Instead, one needs perception, flexibility, and responsiveness, qualities attained through experience. Further, since its goal is to lead to the good life, its reasoning has an ethical dimension, determining what is good, and involves the emotions, which are guided by desires for the good. “Someone who possesses phronesis will have emotions that correctly interpret a situation, that are appropriately responsive to it…”(Reeves 72). In contrast, moral evaluations and emotional responses have no part in scientific deliberation.
But if we cannot use the rules of scientific deliberation to judge practical reasoning, how do we assess it? When Vico, in the 18th century, was promoting practical wisdom through his poetic logic, he described the outcome of such reasoning as probability, as possessing verisimilia or “likeness to truth” rather than it being “likely true.” The distinction between “likeness to truth” and “likely true” is significant. The former emphasizes a kind of resemblance to what we know to be true, an appearance of truth. “Likely true” points to a scale of certainty based upon fact and indicates a less-than adequate point on that scale, connoting uncertainty. (Heidlebaugh 75)
We can better understand verisimilitude by turning to theories of narrative rationality, which philosophers and rhetoricians, such as Ricoeur and Fisher, recognize as a kind of phronesis. Theories of narrative rationality claim that we place specific events into larger narratives as our fundamental way of processing information, of seeing continuity and meaning in the world, Thus, we understand discrete events through their role in a larger human drama. A central characteristic of narrative rationality is its dependence on coherence systems.
Sociologists and psychologists have long understood the importance of coherence systems as “global cultural device(s) for structuring experience into a socially sharable narrative” (Linde 163). Narratives develop coherence systems by explaining events, valuing actions, and giving meaning to particular occurrences. They accrue over time and are handed down, giving us our cultural beliefs, the “universals” (Ricoeur) or “canonical scripts” (Bruner) by which we see causality and continuity in the world. Specific domains of knowledge and practice develop their own narratives and set of expectations and norms. Hayden White (1980) describes a similar idea as organizing schemes that draw narratives together. These schemes can be different in kind such as ideological categories like liberalism or anarchism or cultural grand narratives (Ricoeur 1992).
In reviewing the various explanations of coherence systems, four variable characteristics stand out:
1) Scope: Such systems can be narrow, such as the practices of one family or as
broad as a country’s sense of nationalism.
2) Kind: different systems have different criteria for coherence; for example some can be based on precedence as in juridical thinking while others are based on moral norms or physical practice.
3) Development: coherence systems are not static, rather they are dynamic, constantly being constructed and altered, as new experiences are fit into the coherence system they build on and expand its repertoire.
4) Interrelation: systems are often interrelated and mutually influence one another.
By framing our understanding of events and actions, coherence systems provide the means by which to evaluate reasoning in the majority of everyday occasions—both in content and in method. We make and evaluate arguments naturally, in terms of our own systems of thought. In her work on incommensurability, Nola Heidlebaugh (2001) characterized argument as “functioning to link particular terms with more general and transcendent terms in a single conceptual system” (101). When people have competing coherence systems addressing the same issue, they usually find themselves enmeshed in incommensurable arguments.
For example, she cites one study that analyzed the conflict between the new Christian right and secular humanists. The study found that each side held mutually exclusive fundamental concepts that prevented them from accepting the logical grounds of each other’s arguments: The Christian right came from a monistic worldview while the secular humanists held a pluralistic, pragmatic perspective. These competing coherence systems affected each group’s argumentative standards, making them perceive the other’s reasoning as outside the rational or the probable. (Heidlebaugh 18-19)
Thus, in the realm of practical reasoning and narrative rationality, one’s coherence system holds the key to achieving verisimilitude. A story’s verisimilitude is closely tied to its theme, the point is it trying to make, the end to which all parts of the narrative are directed. We achieve verisimilitude when we construct a story in such a way that the audience finds it plausible according to their coherence system and recognizes the story as reflecting the intended theme. The story’s progression must be consistent with what we know and have experienced of the world. The emplotment must seem probable according to what the audiences’ experiences, beliefs, and values with regard to the story theme. Do the parts of the story, put together that way, reflect that meaning? The drama of a story occurs when it breaks with the canonical, when it contradicts the coherence system in some way, then some resolution must be found within the story or the system itself needs to be altered.
Broussard’s Likeness to Truth
Let us return to the question of the acceptability of Broussard’s story, which had been dismissed as factually inaccurate. Broussard’s story was in response to the question from Russert: “You just heard the director of Homeland Security’s explanation of what has happened this last week. What is your reaction?” (Transcript for September 4). Thus, the point of Broussard’s story is his reaction. He was not asked for factual information about what happened at the nursing home, but rather for a personal evaluation, a perception of what happened.
In telling this story, Broussard is working with a coherence system fairly broad in scope, in which the canonical is the government’s responsibility to care for its citizens. This system is created by the discourse of government, beliefs about the role of government, the many social services provided by the government, and its past response to the needs of its people. Although there are many examples in which the U.S. government has failed its people, for most people the expectation still exists that the government will care for them in a time of crisis. The criteria for coherence in this system is the government’s fulfillment of these expectations by actively responding to a situation. And I would add that people also need to feel cared for by the government.
But in this case of the people of Jefferson Parish, L.A. during Hurricane Katrina, the canonical had been breeched. The inaction of the government was not consistent with the expectations created by the coherence system. In trying to understand these events, abandonment, a moral and emotional condemnation, is the only explanation that makes sense to Broussard. “We have been abandoned by our own country…Hurricane Katrina will go down as one of the worst abandonments of Americans on American soil ever in U.S. history” (Transcript for September 4). His entire discourse that morning was expressing his frustration with the government’s response to Katrina. In addition to the example from the nursing home, he gave other specific scenarios in which FEMA actually acted as obstacles to aid. He emplotted theses discrete events into a story whose theme was the U.S. government’s abandonment of its people. The story achieves verisimilitude by describing a situation, which, according to the coherence system, clearly demonstrates abandonment, even though the particulars are not accurate.
His critics’ coherence system is more difficult to define, but clearly they are not guided by a theme of governmental accountability in a crisis. Rather, they focus on Broussard’s accountability to the facts of the singular event he describes. And their argumentative standards are solely informed by standards of analytical reasoning, as their only issue is the factual inconsistencies of his story. Thus, according to their system, guided by the theme of individual accountability and the methods of propositional logic, his reasoning is emotional and skewed.
A few weeks after the initial interview, on September 27th, Russert brought Broussard back on Meet the Press and asked him to respond to the critiques of the fact-finders. Broussard was baffled but, to his credit, did not try to defend the facts, instead, he reiterates the point of his story:
Sir, that woman is the epitome of abandonment. She was left in that nursing home. She died in that nursing home. But as I stood on the ground sir, for day after day after day, nobody came here, sir. Nobody came. The federal government didn’t come. The Red Cross didn’t come….They did not come. I can’t make it any more clearer than that. (Transcript for September 27)
Broussard’s critics do not acknowledge his claim because they are evaluating his argument as an act of analytical reasoning, when instead, they should view it as phronesis. By overlooking its character as practical reasoning, they fail to evaluate the argument as seeking verisimilitude within a broad coherence system. Further, they do not share the same experiences as Broussard nor allow the story of his experiences to alter their own coherence system. But now, after Katrina, Broussard’s system will never be the same. He must add his recent experiences to that coherence system, which will alter it: instead of general confidence in the government’s care for its people, now the system includes a huge failure on the government’s part, thus undermining any future confidence he might have in it.
The pathos of Broussard’s story fueled the growing outrage at the Federal government during the Hurricane Katrina crisis. His critics may have been seeking to mitigate its impact by reducing his story to a misunderstanding and implying by their factual corrections that his was an illogical, purely emotional outburst. In doing so they work from a coherence system at odds with one that holds the government responsible to take care of its people in times of national crisis. Instead, they evoke individual accountability as a criterion and factual accuracy as the standard. They narrowly applied standards of analytical reasoning to Broussard’s practical reasoning. But “to rely on an algorithm here [in contingent situations] is not only insufficient, it is a sign of immaturity and weakness” (Nussbaum 74). Regardless of the factual errors in his story, Broussard and the victims of Hurricane Katrina were abandoned by the government in the first days of the crisis.
Acknowledging coherence systems can help us look beyond the internal coherence of an argument or even its immediate context, and see it as emerging from and contributing to a larger system of thought, values, and experience. Also, at times it changes the criterion for evaluation from one of truth to one of truth-likeness. Thus, we have a broader, more flexible lens through which to view conflicting positions and can assess how competing ideologies underlie mediated crisis discourse.
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