The Enemy They’re Searching For: Interview with John R. Parsons

Australian anthropologist John R. Parsons researches what he calls “the interplay between morality, narrative, violence, and human-nature relationships”. From 2017-2018 he spent eleven months conducting fieldwork with border militias in the Southern United States. “How,” he asks, “in an area where thousands have perished, did the volunteers enjoy what one described as ‘hunting humans?’”

I interviewed John about his research and the time he spent with border militias in the US, work covered by his article “Experience, Narrative, and the Moral Imperative to Act” for the Journal of Extreme Anthropology. Trigger warning for mentions of violence and sexual violence in this discussion.

I began by asking John what drew him to anthropology.

I used to be involved in historical re-enactments for a long time, working with groups that were focussed on Scandinavian and English societies from around the 950s. I was curious about how people lived, how they experienced the world. Re-enactment involves learning about a culture through performing an idea of what that culture would be. You learn about the materials people used in the past, then try to figure out how they would have used them in real life.

Anthropology provided a space where it wasn’t a hobby, but a discipline with theory behind it and conversations around it; a more formalised version of the things I was already interested in.

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Library Chat Podcast – on Nerf guns, literacy and boisterous play

This week you can find me talking about libraries, literacy, and immersive play on Corin Haines’ Library Chat podcast.

Corin is head of digital services with my current employers at Auckland Libraries in New Zealand, where I’ve been encouraging youth librarians to embrace play, performance, and forms of literacy which needn’t involve books on shelves.

One of the first things I did on arrival in Auckland is arrange for the library to purchase a number of Nerf guns – toys which shoot foam darts – with the aim of encouraging librarians to create activities which combined literacy with more boisterous forms of action and adventure.

The message I’ve been trying to get across is that roleplay and activities which immerse you in a story are just as valid for libraries as anything involving books on shelves.

UNESCO’s Missions of the Public Library don’t even use the word ‘book’ once – but they do mention providing access to cultural expressions of all performing arts, stimulating the imagination and creativity of children and young people, and providing opportunities for personal creative development – alongside reading!

Corin has been, to his credit, an early adopter of the Nerf gun in Auckland – that’s him in the final frame of this YouTube video, which shows staff getting to grips with the toys:

But Corin did ponder the moral implications in a blog post on gunplay and libraries at his own website, concerned that we were encouraging children to celebrate violence through this kind of activity.

This is the kind of problem that keeps a decent librarian awake at night – especially in the light of recent news from the US.

When creating Heroes and Villains activities for the school holidays, how scary should we dare to go?

Should we be allowing kids to identify with explicitly villainous figures? (Somewhere in my mum’s house there is a photo of me dressed as Darth Vader – but I alternated that costume with Spider-man pyjamas and my favourite hero outfit, Batman).

If kids use play to make sense of the world, do we have the right – or the power – to stop them thinking through violence and its consequences using play?

In the light of recent events, I’ll be following up on these questions after a pause for contemplation and acknowledgement of the tragedy in Massachusetts.

In the meantime, you can hear Corin and I chat about literacy and immersive play over at Library Chat.