Interview: The when, how and why of disrupting authority with Sarah Schindler


Sarah Schindler is an Associate Professor at the University of Maine School of Law, where she teaches and researches the areas of property, land use, and local government. This evening she will be a panelist at Think and Drink: Disruption of Authority, an event organized and hosted by Maine Humanities Council. It takes place at 6:30 at SPACE Gallery.

In preparation for the event, I talked with Schindler about how she defines authority and how, exactly, one goes about disrupting it.

You can see a related talk Schindler delivered at TEDxDirigo on the topic of Laws, Norms, and Guerrilla Gardening here:

How do you define authority?

Based on my experiences as first a law student and then a lawyer and now a law professor, when I think about authority I tend to think about the legal structures that constrain our behavior. I think about the form of law either as statutes or ordinances that our elected representatives create, or through court decisions that our judicial system decides. I think of authority as the legal strictures that govern our behavior.

What is the difference between authority as fortified by legal norms authority as fortified by social norms? Do the two always align?

I don’t usually think about legal norms, but of laws and social norms. When I think of laws, I think of the things we just touched on — our regulation through court decisions or statutes like federal, state or local laws that have been adopted. When I think of social norms, I think of informal rules that are governed not by the government or some legal authority, but rather by society. Informal rules are enforced by society and if we break a social norm, we suffer social sanctions as opposed to legal sanctions. Because people want to avoid feeling or experiencing those kinds of social sanctions, they often comply with the social norms in their communities.

Similarly, because we don’t want to go to jail or be fined, we comply with the laws in our communities. There are sanctions for the violations of either one and both control our behavior, but the sanctions are different for the violation of each. And the clarity for our understanding of each is different. With the law, we can look it up. We can read a court decision or read a statute to figure out what the law on any given topic is. That’s not to say there is not still some question, but usually you can look up what a law is, how it was made up and who made it. Social norms are fuzzier. It is not as easy or straight forward to figure out what the norm is in your community. That’s where you have to look at social cues, patterns, behavior, tradition, and other things that indicate what they might be.

What happens when laws and social norms diverge?

Back yard chickens is a good example of divergence between the two. There are a lot of laws on the books—zoning ordinances—that say no to agricultural usage in neighborhoods, and that would include having chickens. But the social norms are changing such that a lot of people want to avoid purchasing factory farmed eggs and they prefer to have their own chickens for harvesting their eggs. That is a pretty prominent social norm including here in Portland and in a lot of other progressive cities. Often, though, the laws haven’t caught up on the social norms and so they’re outdated. In that situation, people are starting to say “I don’t care what the law says. I think it’s fine to have chickens and my neighbors think it’s fine because they have chickens too. I’m going to go ahead and get chickens.” That is where the social norm goes up against the law.

Now I would compare Portland with a fancier community like Cape Elizabeth where people might not be in favor of chickens. They might say, “No, I don’t want you to have chickens in your back yard. I pay a million dollars for my home and I want to live in a nice residential neighborhood.” In that situation, the social norm matches up with the law that does not permit chickens.

Is it more often the case that social norms change change and the law follows—as seems to be the case with marijuana—or the other way around?

It’s really interesting and really depends. There are some things that we call “sticky norms” that are really hard to change. With a situation like sticky norms, we need the law to change first. We think of racial discrimination in the South around the civil rights movement. There, we needed the courts to take the lead and say “you need to do this.” Eventually—we would hope—social norms followed. In other situations, social norms do change first. That can result in the law following suit and changing as well. It really depends. A lot of people have done research that shows how some sticky norms are hard to change. You can do educational campaigns, but that takes a really long time and it’s not always successful. In those situations, we really do need to change the laws first.

The topic of our conversation is “Disrupting Authority.” Where does disruption come into play in all of this?

For me, disrupting authority would be breaking or violating the law with some sort of stated purpose—with a goal of social or legal change. I think the question is how do we decide when to break the law, or disrupt authority, and when do we comply with it. Some people believe that any time you want to get something done and the law doesn’t agree, we should just do it anyway. This touches on what I have talked about with regard to guerrilla gardening. The thinking there is that if you see a lot and it looks ugly, it doesn’t matter who owns it or what the law is—we should make it look better and put it to more productive use. In some situations that might make sense, but I think that deciding when that is proper and when to comply with the law—when to work within existing legal channels and with the authority instead of disrupting it—is the most interesting question. I am very interested in the question that tries to establish when to comply and when to revolt.

Is there an understood or accepted process that helps one figure that out, or is it more about an educated leap of faith?

I think that it should involve some cost benefit analysis. Rather than take a leap of faith, I think that we should sit down and discuss what the outcomes could be. If we go through the authority, what is the likelihood that chance will succeed? If it is zero percent—if we have an entrenched authority and their viewpoint is completely opposite of ours and there is no way they’re going to work with us—then maybe it’s an appropriate time to disrupt that authority. On the other hand, if we have an authority that is 100% sympathetic to our views, then we should talk and work with them. In reality, we’re never at 0% or 100%. We’re always going to be in between and we have to weigh and balance the time, the likelihood of success, the costs, and everything that comes with working within the existing system compared to the sanctions that would come with disrupting it. And we have to ask if either will have a lasting benefit.

With any movement, there are often people who prefer different approaches. There are radicals and there are reformists. Is there a benefit to an overall cause to having both approaches carried our in its name, or does one typically fare better than the other?

That’s interesting. It brings to mind animal rights organizations like the Humane Society, which works on animal welfare issues and changing existing laws to make things better for animals. You then have more radical animal rights activists who release animals from [research facilities] and so you have a spectrum of action there—people working within the system and outside of it. Different approaches may attract different people with different interests to a broader movement. Maybe you raise the flag in a broader way. I think there can be some benefits when it comes to getting the word out and attracting a broader, more diverse base of support. Again, though, I think that sometimes disrupting authority can backfire. That can slow down the progress that others are trying to make from within the system. That’s why we have to be careful. Sometimes if we all join together and work within the system, we might be able to achieve more results more quickly rather than having different groups working in different areas.

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.