July 25, 2018

Turtles, but not all the way down

Offense of the Month July 2018
Probably not the most offensive display this month, probably not even by a longshot, but it’s the quirkiest that has come to my attention. To be sure, it’s the dog days, so I’ve been slacking off. But now right to it.

The honors (that is, as offender of the month) go to a herpetologist (your basic reptile and amphibian specialist), name of Richard C. Vogt. If you webble him (that’s my coinage: it means to search the web, regardless of engine—let’s see if it sticks), you’ll find that Vogt, 68, is a “renowned turtle scientist” (so famous that he even has a species named after him). He is now or at least recently has been director of the Center for Amazon Turtle Conservation at Brazil’s National Institute of Amazonian Research (that’s the river, as you will have guessed; Amazon the online retailer has not yet taken over the field of turtle conservation). Professor Vogt has a PhD from the University of Wisconsin but lacks a degree in common sense (and perhaps self control).

Vogt was at the center of a brouhaha mid-month when he showed slides of “scantily clad female students” during a plenary talk at the annual Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists in Rochester, New York, where he was honored with the Distinguished Herpetologist award of the Herpetologists’ League.

The women pictured in the slides were said to have been photographed (leaving little to the imagination) while doing field research with Vogt and the turtles of the Amazon, but the photos were irrelevant to the subject of his presentation. Conference organizers managed to blot out the indelicacies with blue boxes when the pictures popped up on a screen behind him.

The next day the League rescinded the award, apologized for the “offensive content,” and at a hastily called “emergency” meeting of the League created a new Diversity and Inclusion Committee, appointing Lori Neuman-Lee, a young herpetologist and assistant professor at Arkansas State University, to head it.

All this might be just a blip on the barge of commentary that skates across the Sea of Offensiveness, but for this curious detail: apparently Vogt has been parading photos of his nearly naked assistants for a decade or more in various of his conference presentations. A Daily Beast account of the Vogt affair pointed to a source who said that “Vogt’s trademark has been to mix images of topless women into his talks on his award-winning discoveries.” And evidently not just women: scantily-clad men, including Vogt himself, have appeared in his slide shows.

In other words, Vogt didn’t blindside the conference organizers. Many of the female herpetologists attending the annual meeting were well aware of Vogt’s proclivities, and some refused to attend his session. If this offensive abuse of screen time has been going on year after year and was well known to all sorts of people within the organization, one wonders why it was halted only now. News stories reported that it wasn’t just women who were anticipating Vogt would once again demean the professional conference with his gratuitous slides and innuendo. Surely after nearly a year of #MeToo taking down men acting badly, you might suppose that adult scientists would finally have said No More to this well-known recidivist. Blame may lie on the association’s president, who, it is claimed, has sole authority to choose the annual award recipient, from which springs the honor of addressing attendees. I’ll leave to others to research his turtle-like obliviousness to the risks he was running in knighting the clueless professor.

But I’m wondering what happened much further back along the causal chain: why were the young research assistants decked out in skimpy bikinis? Why were they photographed? Who kept the photographs? What did the subjects believe would happen to the photos? Why was the locus of fuss the showing of photographs and not their provenance? Once again, an example of assigning moral weight to the offensiveness of talking about or displaying an evil rather than acting against the evil itself. It’s like barking at a photographer of an injured turtle without lassoing whoever inflicted the wound. Let’s stop hollering about what lights up the ground and yell instead about what’s happening there, all the way down.