Home | Industry & Research | An ethicist’s take on those ‘obscene’ turtle researcher photos

An ethicist’s take on those ‘obscene’ turtle researcher photos

Would you rescind an award if the recipient included ‘racy’ photographs in a presentation?

The Herpetologists’ League would. The American society of amphibian and reptile researchers revoked renown turtle researcher Richard Vogt’s Distinguished Herpetologist award.

This followed an audience outcry, largely on Twitter, for allegedly offensive photographs Vogt used in a presentation at the Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists in Rochester, New York, last week.

Presenting on ‘Vocalizations in Seaturtles’, Vogt, a professor at the National Institute of Amazonian Research in Brazil, showed photographs of student researchers in swimwear. Parts of the photographs had been censored by conference organisers, without Vogt’s prior knowledge.

Audience and industry outrage swiftly followed.

This then snowballed into a more general discussion about diversity (or, more specifically, the lack thereof), as well as sexual harassment in the field.

As a result, the Herpetologists’ League rescinded Vogt’s award and pledged to address the broader issues that stemmed from the affair.

Photo: The Herpetologists’ League, via Twitter

Vogt, who “altered the course of an entire field of study” through his ground-breaking research on turtle egg temperature and sex, and turtle vocalisations, has denied the photographs were inappropriate and claimed their censoring may have made them appear suggestive.

So, where does this leave Vogt? His presentation slides have not been sighted by Campus Review. Regardless, is it possible to objectively determine whether the material they contain is obscene or not?

Philosopher and ethicist Dr Matthew Beard, from the Ethics Centre in Sydney, thinks so. Rather than encompassing a strict definition, however, he believes obscenity is ‘known when it’s seen’. It is contextually and culturally dependent. For example, the way he would sit on his couch at home is different to how he would sit on a discussion panel at a conference.

“It is a little bit subjective,” he acknowledged.

Campus Review also asked Beard about other ethical considerations arising from the Vogt incident.

CR: Given Vogt’s award was rescinded after photos he used in a presentation were deemed inappropriate by conference attendees, what are the ethics relating to the conflation of one’s professional achievements with their perceived behavioural offences?

MB: This is a conversation that has taken place in the arts for a long time. Some of those conversations have just cropped up into public consciousness again because they’re talked about in Hannah Gadsby’s ‘Nanette’. Where she talks about people like Pablo Picasso, for example, who is known as this artistic genius that was also misogynistic, had sexual relationships with a minor. These are things have been scrubbed from his identity because of his professional achievements. So, there has been an argument that we should separate someone’s intellectual or creative contributions from their character and their personality. That’s a conversation that is worth having. But it’s harder to make that argument in this specific case, because this man was receiving an award and an award is not just a recognition of the quality of your work. Otherwise, we would give anonymous awards to the best piece of research. An award points to you as someone who is of an exemplary standard, a role model. That immediately brings in character.

The second point is a little bit more nuanced. If you want to say that someone should be treated purely on the basis of their professional activity and therefore, shouldn’t be criticised, that’s exactly the principle that this guy violated, because he took researchers and he presented them as sexual objects. If reports are to be believed, he reduced professionals to objects of the male gaze.

People have stated Vogt’s actions follow a history of inappropriate behaviour on his part. What are the dangers associated with acting on allegations? Do you think, in the #MeToo era, this kind of action is becoming more common?

Ultimately, what we’ve got here is public shaming. I think there are risks whenever shame is used as a tool to manage people’s behaviour. That’s not to say risks can’t be managed or aren’t worthwhile. What we’re seeing in #MeToo broadly is that power dynamics are being reshaped. For a long time, power was used as a way for people, primarily men, to get away with things and silence people, including in academia. Academia is incredibly hierarchical. There is a lot of space for power to be misused. It is unsurprising that these things have occurred and the challenge for academic institutions is what they are going to do to prevent that going forward.

There can be problems when people  are suddenly accused of something that happened 10 years ago. #MeToo has revealed that if injustice is not dealt with at the time, it becomes a snowballing problem.

As a result of the incident, the Herpetologists’ League, who gave then rescinded the award, said it would sign a code of conduct and form committees on diversity, inclusivity and “professional conduct.” Do you think these are effective ways of managing this kind of behaviour?

I think that they are weapons in an arsenal, but they aren’t a super bullet. Part of it addresses structural problems of power and certainly codes of conduct that give a very clear set standards…but by their nature, they’re black and white…that’s where ethics comes to the fore. We can help manage behaviour by focusing on how we develop and promote people, based on their character. Which brings us back to the question of whether we should reward based on professional achievement or character. We should ensure that people in power aren’t only held to account by fear of punishment, but that they are also held to account by how exemplary they are.

Diversity policies are helpful because, in the past, there were certain behaviours that weren’t challenged and were rewarded simply by virtue of the fact that the women’s voices were silent, and they often weren’t allowed entry into the room in the first place. I think that’s exactly one of the reasons why it’s so important that we do have inclusive environments where different peoples’ input can be heard, because it’s in these cloistered and siloed spaces that, over time, very strange practices can emerge.

Could zero tolerance-type policies stymie creativity, free speech or behaviour? 

If you are going to shame, then the thing that make shame useful, from an ethical perspective, is that the fear of it eventually leads to people making good on the wrong that they’ve done and then being forgiven. A zero tolerance policy is all of the shame without the redemption.

So, a zero-tolerance policy that exiles someone forever and never allows them to make good on that, that is all of the shame without any of the redemption. Shame, traditionally, has worked in small communities where the same community that shamed the person also helps them to redeem themselves. Communities that operate on shame would want to look to the ways in which they can foster that spirit of redemption. I think that is one of the challenges.

This is one of the challenges, because the #MeToo movement has arisen as the tide that has broken the dam wall. So much has been held back for so long that there is a lot that is now rushing through in a flood. However, the danger is that because it is moving so fast there may be collateral damage in terms of reputations. There may be complex situations that require shades of grey and I think that we’re beginning to see the movement and the conversation accounting for that. Situations like the Aziz Ansari case. People started to say, “well, this might be a little bit more complicated than the Harvey Weinsteins and the Bill Cosbys of the world”. Whether or not this falls into that category without seeing the specific images is hard to know, though it seems like this person was well-known within his community for a particular kind of behaviour. So, it needs to be a wake-up call for those within academia at large and those within the herpetology community specifically.

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