My Vindication Song

Gender inequality, elitism, and ivory tower protectionism all succeeded in weeding me out of my academic career twenty years ago, but only now do I have the words to explain or even understand how and why this happened. From the start, I must emphasize how much I wanted that academic career. Unlike most of my friends at Georgetown (where I earned my PhD in 1994), I never had a scholarship or even a supportive, academically inclined family to help defer costs or give encouragement. I fought tooth and nail, literally alone against the world working multiple jobs to cover the high cost of studies and living expenses for my full time studies plus two years in Indonesia for field research. I graduated without debt. Despite my best efforts and sheer determination, man-splaining, a term often mocked as imaginary, is precisely what squeezed me out of academia.

By the time I was admitted into the hallowed halls of Georgetown in 1989, I had already travelled the globe, learned a few languages, and had developed a passion for activism. I fought a negligent system alongside people with HIV/AIDS before that name was even known in New York in the early to mid 70s, squatted with punk rockers in London in the late 70s, and taught in the Middle East and Southeast Asia in the 80s. I wanted to be an academic and encourage new generations of students to take responsibility for the state of the world we live in. By the time I graduated with my PhD, I had a half dozen journal articles published and a book contract with Oxford University Press. Jobs were hard to come by but I had my share of adjunct teaching on starvation wages and contract jobs in the US and Australia. I was not by any means a failed academic when I left in 2001 to reinvent myself. My students, for the most part, liked me; my list of publications was long; I loved teaching and I loved my research and writing up poignant, meaningful, relevant academic articles (what my little cohort from Georgetown University referred to as activist-linguistics) that challenged the status quo in Indonesian studies. But then, that was probably where it all went wrong.

At my very first AAA (American Anthropology Association) presentation, the local linguistic anthropology superstar explained to me that the inexcusable failing in my paper was my neglecting to mention Javanese speech levels. In truth, speech levels were irrelevant to an analysis of the transcribed Javanese conversation I was describing. My emphasis was on the clearly exposed class and frame differences, the specific way in which a low, working class pedicab driver and his university-educated passenger completely misunderstood each other despite speaking the same language – a miscommunication created without any need for speech level markers. But I was wrong, despite the fact that I am a fairly fluent speaker of Javanese and my man-splaining accuser was not. The embarrassment and humiliation I felt despite the fact that I was right and he was a jack-ass was not diminished at all when that same professor approached me in private at that same conference to praise the exciting new paths I was carving in a tired old field of study. Thanking him outwardly, all I wanted was to punch his lights out – but I didn’t. He, in turn, did a great job of dousing my flame. For the rest of the conference I was quiet and embarrassed by my public shaming, despite fully knowing my work was important and new.

This type of man-splaining was only to continue. My articles and books specifically challenged the standard approach to Javanese sophistication, the structured and stratified character of social relations, praised in academic articles as exquisite models of refinement and grace. To me, this age-old approach was thoroughly inadequate because of what it ignored: the silences that disguised an institutionalized suffering and inequality in everyday social interaction. Taken even further, my work showed how women bore the brunt of this oppressive hierarchical order by facing inequality, violence, and abuse in silence – exactly what others saw as glorified refinement. So, rather than accept the ingrained model of stratified social organization that maintained power for those that long monopolized it (i.e., the nobility, wealthy classes, and men) as dignified and right, I wanted to write about this silence. Silence here is a means of the oppressed contributing to and even glorifying their own oppression in the name of elegant cultural practices. It was a wrong, that as an academic, I hoped to right in some way.

Barriers to my work, however, were firmly entrenched. When I decided to write my PhD thesis on the Javanese language and culture in the early 90s, I was bombarded by the usual expectations:

  • You will learn (obsolete) Javanese script;
  • You will learn Dutch to refer to historical archives in Leiden;
  • You will use old Javanese literature as your data source;
  • You will study Javanese speech levels;
  • You will study priyayi (upper class, wealthy, refined, noble) language and behavior.

But that was not what I wanted to do (except for mastering the speech levels which I think I did). I wanted to record everyday conversations between ordinary, urban, working class women who all knew each other well. I wanted to know what women spoke about to each other on a day-to-day basis. From these conversations, spoken in the language of familiarity (i.e., low Javanese), I could learn how deeply ingrained oppression was, especially since my ‘informants’ were – in addition to being my best friends and ‘family’ in Java – factory workers, servants, and other low-status women. I would show how everyday language was a critical site for cultural identity formation (i.e., oppression) and, thus, the starting point for essential political and social – not to mention analytical – reform.

But my downfall was rooted in my naiveté. I did not realize that this was blasphemous – just as I didn’t realize how the women I studied actually mirrored my own situation. Rather than be burned as a heretic in the citadels of Indonesian studies, I studied at a university where my rebelliousness was unknown simply because there were no Javanese ‘experts’. In fact, I picked Georgetown University because of its excellent socio-linguistics department and the fact that there were no Indonesianists at all in the entire campus. There, I was able to pull together a wonderful group of (all-female) advisors who focused on the far more important gendered, authoritarian, and narrative analysis aspects of my work.

Yet, as a grad student and later as budding academic, whenever I presented my work at conferences, there would inevitably be the usual questions – always uttered by white, male, highly-respected, tenured professors: why are you not referring to Clifford Geertz’s (1960) seminal work on Javanese? Why haven’t you mentioned speech levels? Are you aware of the five speech levels of Javanese? How can you expect these working class people to know how to use ‘correct’ Javanese? What makes you think you can analyze Javanese objectively through personal narratives? Why are you not using Javanese literature for your analysis? Don’t you know that speech from ordinary people will not be ‘good’ Javanese? Don’t you know that you cannot include your own voice in a ‘scientific’ analysis and be taken seriously? Where is your objectivity?

While I never uttered it, echoing inside my head was always, what the f%$* are you talking about? Your comment is irrelevant and it shows that you never listened to a word I said. How dare you tell me about a language you cannot speak? How dare you talk to me about experts that are utterly outdated when my own book on the topic should prove a far more practical approach to understanding Javanese through the gendered lens you know nothing about? Yet, I was being silenced just as my Javanese women were silenced. It is only now that I recognize the irony.

While the usual Indonesianist circles and publication houses dominated by the old boy network rejected my articles, they were published in more activist oriented journals. I wrote about rather uncommon topics that, to me at least, were glaringly relevant – unlike the elegance of submission, the spiritualism of literature, and the grandeur of formal Javanese. I have published on the cruelty and horror of inequality by analyzing how young women deal with rape through letters they wrote to Rifka Annisa, an organization that focuses on providing support to victims of violence in Jogja. I wrote on how and why sexual violence and abuse are natural and accepted aspects of street child culture, again by analyzing their own personal narratives and recognizing how sodomy and submission appear in these stories as natural behaviors of survival, not violence. I have also published on how aid projects’ attempts to empower female farmers were actually causing an increase in women’s burdens, an increase in child malnutrition, and, in too many cases, family break-ups. I gave a plenary talk to Indonesian doctors on how they are institutionalizing an oppressive violence in their practices through the way they speak to and silence certain (lower) classes of patients. I wrote an entire book on how female factory workers described the horrific abuses and cruelty they were subjected to at work in order to expose exactly how the requirements of Javanese ‘formality’ prevented these women from seeking or receiving help. All I did that was so radical was become very close to women and listen to what they were saying about their lives and place their words in a broader context than the interaction, or the standard (out-dated) theory, or expectations of ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ Javanese.

To me, it seemed so simple. Trust and be trusted; listen to what people had to say; recognize the issues (often of inequality) that shape their worldview; analyze their own meanings rather than my own expectations. I was taking a feminist approach long before it was acceptable in Indonesianist circles. It was apparently wrong to cross pollinate cultural analysis and social psychology with a linguistic focus on ‘informants’, especially working class women (who apparently cannot speak their native language correctly), and it was even worse to subjectively place myself in the mix.

Eventually, however, the rejection of my approach to Javanese research did take its toll. I gave up on academia in 2001, moved back to Indonesia, and immersed myself in social development work. Here, my ability to read into and between the lines uttered by aid workers and their target populations of those supposedly in need of aid allowed me to provide insightful recommendations. Being overtly aware of the unequal relations of power between aid worker and beneficiary, between village elites and ordinary residents, men and women, adults and children, my narrative analysis work was a natural fit. My emphasis in project design or evaluations tended to be on communication and actually listening to those positioned as ‘beneficiaries’, rather than imposing on these ‘unfortunate others’ a project that will surely improve their pitiable lives.

While I have done well in terms of career and life in general, the rejection of my academic work still pains me. Man-splaining is a word and an affliction I have only recently learned thanks to the writings of Rebecca Solnit[1]. Meanwhile, the overwhelmingly bizarre confusion that envelops us as a white male proceeds to explain with full authority something he knows only from skimming outdated materials is not just baffling, but demeaning. Eight years of bombardment from these know-it-all males (fiercely guarding their own irrelevance) was too much for me. I certainly have felt slighted by the obscurity that has surrounded my contributions; especially in light of the snail-paced shifting toward the approach I took 25 years ago. No one knows of my work, and, as far as I know, there has still not been an academic analysis that focuses on everyday Javanese and challenges the hierarchical refinement. I no longer keep up with contributions in my field – a simple case of the rejected in turn rejecting the source of that painful slighting.

Yesterday, however, I was sent a link to a book review for an author (female) that is re-interpreting a violent part of Indonesian history based on women’s narratives. The book review praises the author’s “appropriate sources” as Ben Anderson, the classic on power and Java, and “the less well known but critically insightful work of Laine Berman on gender, emotion and violence in Java”, as the well chosen references for this impressive and ground-breaking work[2]. Seriously??? Am I being rescued from insignificance and finally to be given a place among the well-known canon of white men? The thrill of recognition, I am ashamed to admit, delights.

“Men explain things to me”, as Rebecca Solnit[3] so effectively describes, is what “crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence.” Thank you Rebecca for helping me to contextualize the defeat I felt as men told me far too many times that my work is wrong for not following the (male) paths set so firmly in stone.

Even as I write this, fifteen years after my rather rocky career shift, I still feel a tightness in my throat and a disappointment at my not having had the confidence then to kick back at the stupidity. I was too unprepared to deal with all the class and gender biases that may have thwarted me as an academic but definitely did not crush me as an activist. I did continue to publish articles and books that I am still proud of today even though they are ignored in university reading lists. But it is only now that I am aware of how my own oppression was such a perfect mirroring of the Javanese women I live amongst. It was so much easier to recognize someone else’s oppression than it was my own. I sincerely regret the fact that my academic advisors never warned or prepared me to stand up to the man-splaining that in the 90s we had no words to describe yet. This is despite the fact that pretty much every female I know is subjected to this humiliation all too frequently in her life. I write this, then, for all you women who strive to break new grounds in any fields of study or beyond. Support each other; listen to each other, because you truly do have much worth hearing and some man will surely take offense.

Yogyakarta, 2016




One thought on “My Vindication Song

  1. My deepest admiration and congratulations dear Laine….for writing this, your story. I can see clearly that everything you said tells the truth about the Javanese culture, about the “stuck-in-the-past” world of White Men’s Academia in the field of being “Indonesianists”… and it is a microcosm of what happens in the world in most other fields…. but particularly politics.. i.e. politics of running countries. The Establishment everywhere are hanging on to their positions of power and reputation, and they are way behind the ever-faster moving times. In support of this aim, they will belittle, cry-down anyone or anything that looks “threatening”. Laine my friend, I am quite sure that Ms Solnit praising and referencing your work is just the beginning. The way the big wheel turns – “slowly” , you might be waiting and waiting, but a time will come when your work will be THE source to go to, to find out the real story of Javanese culture. You might eclipse Clifford Geertz and Co. Haha. It’s no consolation, I know, but you are right, I’m sure. Of course, it’s only logical that the ordinary Javanese women around you every day, know better than those old-fashioned Indonesianists, what their situation is and how it is perpetrated upon them. Interesting too, what you said about the way the irony of your situation in academia and theirs in society, mirror each other. I too had a life experience, where I couldn’t clearly see exactly how the oppression was being put upon me either, until I finally escaped it. Self-doubt, as you said, is our own worst enemy, and we only have that, because MEN put it into us in the first place, via our upbringing, our socialisation, education etc ! All part of the plan.
    Lots of love to you – Cynthia Webb

    Liked by 2 people

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