The following essay, from December 1998, assumes a familiarity with the designations "Rooster" and "Owl" as used by The Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University and Prof. Richard Landes.  Briefly put, Rooster and Owl represent 2 approaches to apocalyptic predictions or prophecies: The Rooster (a bird of the day) crows that the new day is dawning; the expected change is happening now.  The Owl (a bird of the night) says that the time is not now; the expected change will come later, or not at all.  A more detailed description of these labels can be found on the CMS website

Gaining the wisdom of both Roosters and Owls

By David Kessler

The conflict between the views of Roosters and Owls is more quantitative than qualitative, leaving open the possibility of the two sides compromising and working together.  While the designations are recently made, I have found people willing, and even eager to be classified as one or the other when a topic is presented.  "Rooster" or "Owl" is obviously an attractive division of approaches that can be found on a societal scale.  Learning to deal with this basic division, and learning to reduce the degree to which this division hampers both discussion and action, would be very useful to advancing a whole range of debates.

For the sake of defining positions - and being able to work more immediately with the divisions - I will use the topic that is most immediate, and inspired the exchange that lead me to these thoughts: The Y2K Computer Problem.  For simplicity's sake I am considering this problem at no level greater than continental North America.

Basic Assumptions:

Y2K encompasses 2 distinct problems that must be separately recognized to appreciate, and then to deal with, the overall dilemma. First, there are the direct consequences of Y2K.  These concern the computer systems, and computer dependant systems, themselves.  The number of these systems that fail outlines a range of impact from minor and personal (a few individuals' desktops fail to function properly) to major and personal (a few individuals' lives are completely disrupted through a series of computer and equipment failures) to minor and societal (across the continent, people experience minor disruptions leading to a temporary work slowdown) to major and societal (mass breakdown of necessary equipment requiring repair technicians to work for several weeks or months before the majority of systems are returned to acceptable levels of function).  Second, there are the indirect consequences of Y2K.  These concern the human systems that (socially or psychologically) comprise our civil society and culture.  This aspect of Y2K is not dependant on any failures of equipment to cause disruption, because it is based in expectation and anticipation (future) as much as it is on facts and existing conditions (past and present).  The range of this aspect's impact runs from low level apprehension to paranoia and a readiness to protect a personal horde of provisions with force.  The scope of its impact runs from the individual scale to a major fragmentation of society.

Interaction between the 2 aspects of Y2K can make things better or worse, depending on how committed to or withdrawn from general society the populace is: An engaged society will work to preserve itself as a body, while an individualistic society will attempt to wait out disruption from the safety of each members' personal space, seeing each anecdote of disruption as proof that it's philosophy is the correct one.

To deal with one aspect of Y2K while ignoring the other, would be like dealing with a blackout by assigning electrical workers to restore power, or assigning police to arrest looters and reassure the populace, but not doing both.

Two Vantage Points: Agitation and Complacency

Now for an analysis of the "Roosters & Owls" debate, with an eye toward making them less mutually exclusive birds of a feather, and more mutual gadflies, able to spur each other toward the common goal of a better and healthier society.

Working from the idea that there are the discussed 2 problems under the 1 Y2K umbrella, roosters and owls may be classified in the following way:

Roosters feel that the potential technical problems (direct consequences) of Y2K are so great that the populace must be stirred up and roused into action.  Asked about Y2K as a social problem (indirect consequences), the rooster will answer that the possible negative reactions to this stirring are secondary, because of the great damage likely to occur without the stirring that will produce some positive action.  The rooster will include social dimensions into plans for action, and assume that the negative reaction can be kept below the threshold that would make them more damaging than the good gained by crowing a call for action.  Roosters regard complacency as the most damaging stance.

Owls feel that the potential for a negative reaction in society (indirect consequences) could cause so great a civil chaos that potential technical problems must be secondary to concerns of preserving the social fabric.  Asked directly about Y2K as a technical problem, the owl will recognize the need to fix the problem, but will believe this problem to be well in hand by those controlling the various companies and projects in question.  The fact that certain sectors have effectively dealt with Y2K already (long range mortgage and insurance projections, long range shipping schedules, some credit card systems, etc.) assures the owl of society's ability to fix the problem as each new deadline arrives.  Owls regard agitation as the most damaging stance.

Strengths, weaknesses, and zones of safety

Without knowing which of the two aspects of Y2K will be the more pressing one, the two approaches must be looked at based on the tendencies of their proponents.

The rooster is not prone to under-estimate the magnitude of the overall problem, but is prone to over-estimate it.  The rooster assumes that the reality of the problem will be close enough to his projections that society will not have lost too many resources that may have been over-allocated toward Y2K solutions and contingencies; the populace can easily adjust it's expectations and emotions downward (toward the owl's) to fit the actual situation, or to return to normal after the crisis is over.  So long as the rooster's over-estimation is within society's ability to adjust to the actual situation, the position is valid, or safe.

The owl is not prone to over-estimate the magnitude of the overall problem, but is prone to under-estimate it.  The owl assumes that the reality of the problem will be close enough to his projections that society will be able to adjust its efforts as problems arise, handling problems on the fly, as it were.  So long as the owl's under-estimation is within society's ability to adjust to the actual situation, the position is valid, or safe.

The tension of the division

With each side attuned to it's favorite aspect of Y2K, roosters and owls could be the perfect pairing - working complimentarily to cover all problems.  So what keeps them from working together?  In order to work together, one side would have to broach the idea first.  Unfortunately, doing so would make that side vulnerable to the other:

If a rooster suggested that owls have a valid outlook, the owls could accept the compliment without returning it.  The rooster would then have given up his exclusivity. (Crowing is more forceful when a rooster can point to a supposed prevailing misguidance among owls.  This is what a rooster usually means when calling someone an owl.)

The same is true for the owl, who could lose all credibility as a calm, cool and collected citizen by reaching out to the roosters (how can you reassure people once you admit that the roosters have a valid point?).

A plan for resolution

Because being the first side to suggest working together offers the greatest risk, while waiting within a haven of exclusive rhetoric gives the greatest safety (a sort of reversed prisoner's dilemma?), neither side can be counted on to approach the other in any non-adversarial manner.  Some unofficial meeting would have to be arranged where the sides could develop more confidence in the intelligence and motives of the other side.  Questions could be posed to roosters and owls, answered, and then those answers considered by the group as the basis for a second round of answers to the same questions.  Answers could be collected anonymously to allow participants more freedom to play with the other side's ideas.

Such meetings would not be intended to convince either side that it was wrong.  Indeed, only by having both ideologies intact and energetic would a complimentary partnership be at all useful to society.

Possible questions (with the debate they would ideally provoke)

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