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Reviews of A Call to Cosmopolitan Communication

Sheila McNamee, Ph.D., Professor of Communication, University of New Hampshire, Co-Founder & Vice President, Taos Institute

As we enter the third decade of the 21st Century, our ability to avoid diverse and often incommensurate worldviews is nearly impossible. One would have to live in a bubble and avoid all social media to remain ignorant of the multiplicity of beliefs, values, and worldviews circulating in our families, our communities, our regions, and our nations. We confront political, religious, educational, medical, mental health, and governing differences to name only a few. Such diversity of beliefs and values often generates conflict, at best, and violence, at worst. With conflict omnipresent, there is no better resource than Arthur Jensen’s A Call to Cosmopolitan Communication. Drawing on the Coordinated Management of Meaning Theory developed by Pearce and Cronen, Jensen digs deep into the notion of cosmopolitan communication. Cosmopolitan communication could be described as a way of positioning ourselves in relation to difference. Typically, when confronted with difference we try to adjudicate which worldview if right and which is wrong, attempting to persuade “the other” to our own worldview. This approach is devoid of curiosity for difference; it is devoid of interest in transforming our own worldviews. Cosmopolitan communication, on the other hand, views diverse worldviews as inevitable and, rather than try to erase diversity, cosmopolitan communication celebrates difference, entices us to become curious (rather than judgmental), and expands our appreciation of the multiple ways of being human. The notion of cosmopolitan communication is critically important if we are to survive in this complex global arena. Jensen’s book is the first in-depth look at cosmopolitan communication, connecting the concept with other aspects of the Coordinated Management of Meaning Theory and also with other social theories that advocate for self-reflexivity as a necessary survival skill in the 21st Century. The accessibility of Jensen’s writing invites the reader—both professional and lay—recognize how cosmopolitan communication can save us from mutual destruction and facilitate the construction of new forms of relating where differences can co-exist.

 

Vernon Cronen, PhD, Emeritus Professor University of Massachusetts, Adjunct Faculty, University of North Carolina, Wilmington.

Arthur Jensen’s A Call to Cosmopolitan Communication is a “Must Read” both for its explanation of the theory, Coordinated Management of Meaning, and for its relevance to the current social/political situation in the Western World. It is a major contribution to the literature on Interpersonal Communication and to the theory Coordinated Management of Meaning (CMM) originally developed by Barnett Pearce and this reviewer. It is an important effort to bring together a major theory of communication with perspectives on neurology and the problem of social cohesion. Although it does not make a specific analysis of the current social and political divisions in the US and elsewhere, its relevance is clear. Jensen frames CMM theory in a way that leads to the importance he attaches to cosmopolitan communication, an idea Barnet Pearce began developing in 1989.

The book begins by making a case for a systemic–joint action conception of communication focused on coordination and open possibility. In this, Jensen joins with the original CMM perspective opposing the traditional view of communication: namely, that communication is a one-way transmission process focused on coherence, and with the terminal goal of perfecting mutual understanding. Jensen provides a very useful overview of CMM theory summarizing its major features. This part of the book will be useful for understanding what he calls the “physics” of CMM and for teaching that to students. From there Jensen offers ideas about the relationships among mind, brain and social action. While this reviewer has some concerns about whether Jensen’s account strays toward dualism, the treatment is sophisticated and demands thoughtful engagement.

The book frames CMM theory such that it terminates in a call for cosmopolitan communication. By this Jensen, like Pearce, means communicating in a way that participants put their own understandings at risk in a process of coordinating with others unlike themselves. This he contrasts with other forms of communication in which participants assume that their understanding and traditions are the only ones, or ultimately the best ones. Cosmopolitan communication is also contrasted with the idea that good communication is overcoming or compromising differences to achieve mutual coherence. That goal is rejected in favor of prizing “mystery.” By mystery Jensen means the recognition there are multiple ways of understanding and acting that are constantly evolving. Whether the reader agrees with this focus on cosmopolitan communication is less important than the value of seriously engaging with Jensen’s important ideas. 


 

Ilene Wasserman, PhD, President ICW Consulting Group

Turn on cable news; open a newspaper or join friends, family and neighbors for a conversation. Inevitably, seemingly within moments, the topic of polarized conversations surfaces. Arthur Jensen’s new book, A Call to Cosmopolitan Communication, is a must read for those who, like me, are asking themselves: “How do we go on from here?” 

Professor Jensen poses this question in the opening chapter: “How might we seek to coordinate with others whose views are different from our own rather than try to persuade and resolve the differences?” The response to this question is an invitation to the communication perspective; an invitation to shifting the focus from you hearing me to each of us taking responsibility for coordinating meaning together. Based on the Theory of the Coordinated Management of Meaning (Pearce & Cronen, 1980, 1989; 2004), Jensen provides clear guidance on how to look at the relational and communication patterns, and become more agile in moving undesirable patterns to generative ones. 

In this book, Jensen invites us to engage in cosmopolitan communication. Cosmopolitan communication, as a process and a commitment, acknowledges and explores differences with a sense of curiosity not necessarily for the sake of agreement. As Jensen says, “In practice, cosmopolitans seek to coordinate differences through dialogue and engagement rather than eliminate those differences through assimilation, tolerate them via passive acceptance, or ignore them altogether.”

In order to engage in cosmopolitan communication, one needs to be able to “look at” the relational and communication patterns. In the first three chapters, Jensen introduces the perspective that how we engage with each other, our patterns, are consequential to the quality of our relationships and the worlds we create together. Jensen guides the reader in fine tuning this capability through images, metaphors, stories and vignettes. The variety is such that the reader can easily find a way of connecting and thereby strengthening this skill.

In the next section of the book, Jensen connects with other theories and frameworks such as adult development and interpersonal neurobiology that support the central intents of the book: that mystery plays a key role in cosmopolitan communication. In order to hold a cosmopolitan mindset, we need to accept that that the stories we rely on to make sense of the world and our interactions with others are partial and incomplete—strongly suggesting that we need to be both less certain about our own individual meaning-making and more open to meaning-making with others. We need to embrace mystery.

Finally, Jensen outlines the specific skills one needs to develop and hone in order to best coordinate with others, particularly in those situations that are most challenging. As one who works with leaders and organizations who are wanting to build inclusive cultures and challenge structural inequality and historic racists’ structures, this book’s practical theory and guide to living in a world that is increasingly polarized and complex offers a powerful way to build a pathway forward.


 

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