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Last Updated: 09/30/2003
Chicken Little Vs Ostrich
Matthew Norton

Perhaps the birds are our Scylla and our Charybdis. 


On the one hand is hellfire and apocalypse, a vast retribution for our vast sins.  Our comeuppance is a looming strife or perhaps devastation of another order – nuclear or environmental catastrophes may well lurk around the corner.  The game is lost or is being lost and irrevocably so. 


On the other hand urgency is discarded as hysteria.  The past is used to console all future fears.  A shortsighted, stubborn form of hope trumps logic, trends, and facts, and the reassuring slogan of Dame Julian of Norwich – “... and all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well” – becomes the basis for politics and foreign policy.  From this perspective the lid can be kept on simmering discontent for as long as is necessary, forever really.  Mutually assured destruction makes another use of nuclear weapons a remote possibility.  The environment is resilient, and can take it.


The story of Chicken Little[1] is a story of disaster prematurely foretold.  An acorn falls in the forest upon the chicken’s head, and the interpretation that Chicken Little jumps to is that the sky is falling.  A discrete event is interpreted to support a worst case understanding of the situation.  Panic ensues, nearly leading to disaster for chicken and friends.


The Ostrich, on the other hand, has come to represent an oblivious, and even a willfully ignorant approach to dealing with problems.  The image is that of an ostrich responding to a dangerous situation by plunking its head into the sand.  Danger is ignored in hopes that it will simply vanish.  Now on the behalf of ostriches everywhere, there has never been a documented case of an ostrich engaging in such a defensive strategy.  It seems that the original idea comes from the ostriches’ habit of rooting in the soil for food, and it was picked up by a cartoonist in 1910, becoming a myth that has proven hard for the ostrich to shake.  One reason for that, perhaps, is that the image perfectly captures a very human tendency – to ignore that which is disturbing and dangerous, particularly when only complex and difficult solutions exist. 


Chicken Little and Ostrich as ideal types can be seen, in various guises and to varying degrees, as influential frameworks guiding the interpretation of events, implicitly or explicitly, with regularity.  There is, of course, intense debate on which claims exhibit such extremism however.  Some would claim that predictions of nuclear Armageddon and incipient environmental collapse are examples of the former.  Others find such predictions eminently logical and would claim that those who think that nuclear Armageddon will be forestalled forever and environmental collapse will eventually be headed off are guilty of the latter.


Chicken Little thinking is preoccupied with the capacity for disaster in it all.  It focuses on the spread of violence and war, the exacerbation of problems, the failures of policy that will lead to ruin, starvation, human rights abuses.  Neither of these tendencies are always misguided, neither always right.  Predictions that would indicate that the growing divide between rich and poor in the developed and developing worlds will somehow lead to generalized conflict are perhaps overstated, for example(though the connections between this divide and assymetrical acts of violence ought not be discounted).  Specific predictions are often also marked by this kind of overstated Chicken Little logic, particularly when a political point is at stake.  For example, during the lead up to the US-led war in Iraq of 2003, there were some predictions that more than 1.5 million refugees would be created by the war, and that there would be somewhere around 100,000 civilian casualties.  Neither predicted disaster occurred, with numbers of refugees proving negligible[2] and terribly high civilian casualties rates that were hugely below the most apocalyptic predictions[3]. 


Ostrich tendencies emerged in the case of Iraq as well.  A huge amount of attention was paid to JDAM GPS guided bombs and other technological advances which would make this a “clean war”, and to the rosy prediction of the US administration that the coalition troops would be greeted with flowers and acclaim as they began the rapid process of turning Iraq into a shining example of an Arab liberal democracy, a model which would thence sweep through the corrupt and authoritarian regimes of the Middle East.  Neither cleanliness, flowers, nor the rapid and profound democratization of Iraq have proven more substantial predictions than the foretold catastrophe.  Such ostrich tendencies exist in many domains.  The claim that global warming is unproven or that HIV is not linked with AIDS are others.  Chamberlain’s appeasement of the Nazis has become almost a prototypical example. 


The good moderate course is to suggest that each of these is dangerous in its own right[4] and that we should abandon these extremes in favour of the measured middle, which eschews the extravagance of falling skys along with the extravagant ignorance implied by a perspective that willfully ignores threats to world peace and stability. 


Moderation may not be the answer in this case though.


I would suggest that though the perspectives of both the Chicken Littles and the Ostriches are each skewed in their own way, they are both unavoidable and absolutely necessary for the production of more balanced analyses as well as for making decisions about what we are to do in the face of alarming trends, and guiding our actions.


Each of the two metaphors that I have introduced here represents a framework for making sense of discrete events.  They are ways of discerning trends and patterns from an overwhelming amount of information.  Another way to say this is that they represent efforts to construct meaningful interpretive frameworks that guide us in making sense of the world and the things happening in it.  Assigning different meanings and interpretations to the same events, as well as making different predictions and deciding on different courses of action as a result of those interpretations, is a core human experience, and a necessary one.  We don’t need to abandon extreme interpretive views such as those represented by Chicken Little and the poor misrepresented Ostrich, but need more of them.  More and different ways of making sense of the world are key components of the dialogue between views and interpretive frames of reference that allow us to know what moderate views are at all.  Such views frame the debate and are the condition for it to occur.


Such frameworks of understanding are not only important out of academic interest in a plethora of perspectives.  They also have extremely important practical ramifications, never more so than when their apparent extremism actually proves to be a more valid interpretation of events.  It would have been easy to identify and marginalize the first theorists who started to warn of global warming as Chicken Littles.  The warming of the planet, the rise of the seas, radical shifts in patterns of precipitation resulting in massive ecological shifts that will be highly detrimental to humans – these are no longer considered extremist views, and in fact those who reject this scenario are seen now with suspicion. 


Similarly, claims regarding Hitler’s intentions for continental domination were treated with suspicion by those under Chamberlain but were later recognized as frighteningly true.  During the Cuban Missle Crisis, the argument was made by General Curtis LeMay and others that the US needed to engage in offensive military action in order to show the USSR that they meant business.  The argument was made that any who were against such actions were essentially “appeasers”[5] who were ignoring the hostile intent of the USSR.  Cooler heads prevailed, and it is only in recent years that anyone has realized how close the world was to a nuclear exchange at that time.


The productive debate between these views is also useful in guiding specific policy and action – these are interpretive frameworks with real impacts.  While it might be hasty to claim that the Netherlands will be flooded from the map as a result of global warming, for example, recognizing the potential for flooding with the likely increase of ocean levels over the next century is a measured position that emerges in the middle of the Chicken Little and the Ostrich position.  The Dutch are now engaged in huge long-term efforts to ensure that they take actions to reinforce dikes and floodgates which will ensure that the doomsday scenario of a flooded Holland remains an extremist claim.[6]


It is often impossible to know how best to judge a particular situation, how best to make sense of it, and meaningfully integrate it into our understanding of the world.  This is precisely why we need both Chicken Littles and Ostriches, militarists and appeasers, religious extremists and radical secularists.  Such perspectives are the debate and the capacity for debate. 


It is less important, I would argue, to notice whether the tendency to predict that the sky is falling or the tendency to bury ones head in the sand to ignore impending disaster is more often correct than the other.  What is important is the exchange between them, and the capacity that they have to correct each other.  Moderate positions may cling to an eminently reasonable middle, but how would we know where that middle was if we didn’t have skys falling, on the one hand, and heads buried, on the other, telling us, from deep in the sand, in muffled voices, that it is all going to be okay?
[3] ; note that the current estimates include a calculated increase in the extent of street violence due to the crumbling of Saddam Hussein’s security apparatus thereby beginning to stretch the original purpose of this initiative which was to calculate civilian casualties inflicted by the coalition.
[4] Though I would admit to being a bit of a Chicken Littlealong with many in the peace studies field, the Ostrich perspective seems to be the more immediately dangerous of the two.

Matthew Norton is a Lecturer in Peace Studies at the University for Peace.