Higher Ed Hot Takes
• Issue #17

Death by a million moral paper cuts

A bunch of shredded purple paper in a pile.

Death by a million moral paper cuts

Working on a web team means working on behalf of institutional communication. Sometimes, web work is in service of content strategy and design, while other times, it’s in service of the development of tools and functionality. But, at the end of the day, it’s all about providing some material to create meaning in another person’s mind.

Communication has all sorts of goals attached to it, but one goal is certainly to be an action that fulfills the demands of justice. Whether telling the truth or providing access to procedures to improve a situation, communication is a big part of our pursuit of everyday justice.

There has been a lot of research in recent years on moral injury, a term coined by psychiatrist Jonathan Shay and colleagues back in the 1990s to describe the experiences of military personnel when their directives violated their values. Revamped in 2009, moral injury has come to mean the trauma of perpetuating moral wrongs against others despite one’s wholehearted desire and responsibility to do otherwise.

In the last ten years, moral injury has been studied in education, particularly in K-12 educators. More recently, moral injury has emerged as an explanation for the great resignation across many industries. In particular, researchers have proposed that moral injury is a more significant factor than burnout in employee turnover.

As web professionals working on behalf of institutions of higher education, we also sometimes bear the brunt of a kind of moral injury. I’d like us to consider the accumulation of moral paper cuts.

When institutions have contexts and circumstances that do not align with our values, our best efforts to communicate in service of justice can be morally ambiguous.

Let me ask you:

  1. Have you ever been asked to promote a program knowing there aren’t jobs available in your state to support all of your graduates?

  2. Have you ever recruited students to programs for which you know the industry underpays and burns people out? (I am looking at you, web teams that represent pre-K-12 teacher education programs).

  3. Have you ever advertised a “flexible” graduate program that was anything but requiring students to come to campus during traditional work hours?

  4. Have you had to post policies or web copy that could detrimentally impact a portion of your students?

  5. Have you removed or made content a little harder to find to protect a necessary funding resource from being depleted too quickly?

  6. Have you collected data in surveys that could cause students to experience stereotype threat? Has that data been used to make informed decisions?

  7. Have you created a web experience where the goals of institutional self-preservation override the kinds of content you know would be most helpful to students and their families?

  8. Have you ever pushed a brand identity that didn’t align with the current student experience?

  9. Have you ever promoted symbolic efforts to make your campus more inclusive, knowing the reality is different?

Enter the moral papercut. This list is fairly common but not at all comprehensive. Many web team members have responsibilities to communicate political and public relations positions that go against their own values.

In this vocabulary of moral infractions, psychologists and philosophers have a term for the leftover feeling when doing something that feels uncomfortably misaligned with your values for a boss or an organization: moral residue. My hunch is that our institutional life breeds moral papercuts that add up to this feeling of unease due to moral residue. Even if there are few options at a web team member’s disposal, and they have to do something or face worse consequences, moral residue follows them.

When we face the possibility of accruing moral paper cuts, there are three main tactics we take to avoid the discomfort:

  • Loyal subversion

  • Using administrative voice to protest injustice

  • Or exiting

Loyal subversion is when sufferers of moral injury muddle along. They appear to stay loyal to the institutions and systems that put them in a morally compromising position, but not entirely. They need some way of discharging their discomfort. So, they subvert those systems in the ways they can get away with. They might follow the letter of the law while violating the spirit of the law. They might advise people on how to exploit tiny loopholes. Or they might engage in behaviors such as gossiping, foot-dragging, and simulating productivity while subtly synthesizing compliance with resistance.

Resistance by way of compliance tends to diffuse and disperse the moral paper cut across more people. When a person engages in foot-dragging and simulating productivity, they make the day-to-day work a little harder for everyone else, thereby increasing burnout and turnover.

Exiting is when staff members leave their positions. Quitting for moral reasons can feel really good in the moment. The trouble is that whole departments, and even institutions, can “exit” morally challenging issues by creating barriers for the compromising situation to arise in the first place. Imagine a department that doesn’t want to face the morally difficult issue of student parents struggling in their programs. So, they quietly choose not to admit students that signal they have children somewhere along the application process, and they counsel students who become parents to take extended leaves of absence from their studies.

Using your voice to protest injustice is taking institutional action. This might mean participating in committee work, running for positions in your university senate, or petitioning issues to your leadership and board of regents. It’s civic action at the organizational level, and it takes a lot of energy and time.

Kristin, why on earth are you writing about such a downer topic right before the holidays?

I am writing about our moral paper cuts for a few reasons.

  1. The most ironic facet to the moral paper cuts that communicators suffer is that many work in higher education explicitly to be moral. We believe in education and its power to nurture human flourishing and relieve human suffering. So when something we believe in so much lets us down, it hurts. And, it’s important to acknowledge that hurt.

  2. I want you to know that you are not the only one experiencing this. Moral paper cuts build up over time and can cause us to feel ashamed of our work. This can deplete our enthusiasm and make it harder to do the things that lead to better employment opportunities. Knowing that others experience similar organizational effects can help clear the shame and sense of powerlessness.

  3. I wish that I could say these events broadened our moral universe and gave us new tools for understanding and working through complex problems. But, these moral papercuts more often lead to tiny rationalizations that lead to further moral slippage. We get comfortable with these infractions we played a part in. We compare them to larger wrongs to feel better. We give them labels, so they sound less dubious. This frees us of our moral accountability and makes room for worse moral infractions to creep into our behaviors.

  4. It helps to be able to label a common experience. Sharing a vocabulary for a widespread problem makes that problem easier to identify, deal with, and overcome. It helps us prevent becoming stuck in a morally ambiguous environment. And it prevents the moral slippage from too many papercuts built up over time.

Let’s be bandaids for one another. Let’s acknowledge these paper cuts and share the organizational strategies that reorder our incentives and reward us for the good we create. You all do amazing things, and the world needs you doing your best for the best reasons.

Kristin Van Dorn