Tobias Kelly on Freedom of Conscience: PoLAR Author Interview

PoLAR Associate Editor Jennifer Curtis conducted an interview with Tobias Kelly, whose article “Justice, Conscience, and War in Imperial Britain” appears in the November 2020 issue of PoLAR.

Would you give the readers that have not had a chance to read your article yet a brief description of your research and the insights it yielded?

In many ways the article is about the limit of ethical responses in the face of large scale forms of political violence inequality, as well as the narrow forms of justice that are available through the law. Around five years ago I was carrying out some archival research in the basement of the University of Aberdeen on the edge of the North Sea. In the files of a previous Vice-Chancellor (President) of the University, I came across a one-page document that was an application from someone called Mr. Noor Mohamed for exemption from military service in the British military during the second world war. A bit more digging showed that Mr. Mohamed was an itinerant merchant from the Punjab, who had been in the far north of Scotland, probably selling cloth door-to-door, and had then become caught up in the introduction of conscription.

The broader research was an archival and oral history project that focused on the lives of British conscientious objectors to military service and the ways in which their commitments were threaded through the history of British human rights and humanitarianism. and I am interested in these people because they are somehow troubling, committed to many of the causes that I find attractive: internationalism and the anti-war movement, for example, but at the same time they also refused to fight Fascism. In a sense, they troubled my own conscience. It is a project then about particular forms of conviction and their limits.

This specific article though is an attempt to understand how Mr. Mohamed’s document got into the archive, and what it tells us about the types of freedom promoted by the British state and the tensions between liberalism and Empire. The vast majority of the tens of thousands of people who applied for and were granted exemption from military service were male, middle-class, and Protestant. Mr. Mohamed was different—and was refusing to fight on the grounds that the war had nothing to do with him. As a subject of the British Empire, on metropolitan British soil, he was liable for military service. The British state seemed completely confused over what to make of him and how to judge his claim of conscience. Only a very narrow form of conscience seemed legible: a narrow and racially-marked form of liberty grounded in personal scruples, which turned war into a question of individual ethics rather than global inequality. Although Mr. Mohamed may appear as a marginal figure, in an apparently marginal place, and his specific experience was relatively unusual, it is at the interstices of the state and Empire that their tensions are laid most bare. In a small town on the northeast coast of Scotland, the forms of justice and injustice produced by a liberal Empire at war begin to come into view.

Can you describe for readers how your prior research led to your recent work on conscience as a right?

In hindsight, if there are common threads that run through my work, one of the key common elements has been a concern with the cultural and political life of human rights. This focus on human rights is not because I am a true believer, although I am not a complete skeptic either. I think I am probably best described as an agnostic, and an anti-clerical one at that. But I do think a focus on human rights allows us to think through some of the moral and political sensitivities—with all their dead ends and potentials—that have marked recent decades in actually existing liberal democracies and elsewhere.

The second thread is a concern with evidence, namely how particular evidential claims are made legible and persuasive, and what types of political and social possibilities are produced as a result. Linking the two, it seems to me that the crucial and difficult issue in many human rights debates is not one of principle or norms, but evidence.

My original doctoral work can be read as concerned with both the right of freedom of movement and the right to a nationality, in the context of Occupied Palestine. As such, it examined the multiple ways in which Palestinians struggled with proving they had a “right to have rights,” against the background of a sometimes capricious, violent, and discriminatory occupation.

After returning from fieldwork in Palestine, I was often asked to write expert witness reports for Palestinians claiming asylum, and more often than not these cases involved an account of torture. But the more of these I wrote, the more obvious it became to me just how difficult it was to produce legally persuasive evidence around torture. Indeed, it seem to me that some of the most vexing question for human rights actors are not how can we define torture—most people can agree on a definition in broad terms—but whether a particular person in front of us should be recognized as a torture survivor or perpetrator, and how we can know this? This led me to write This Side of Silence, a book looking and how evidence around torture was produced, acknowledged, and denied in Britain, ranging across asylum tribunals, military courts, and criminal trials. One of the things that my research has taught me is that the ways in which we know torture, the forms of evidence we find persuasive, the types of bodies that we are willing to recognize as survivors or perpetrators is never self-evident, but is always shot through with histories of class, gender, and race.

My most recent project then takes this interest in human rights and evidence to focus on the history of freedom of conscience in Britain, asking what types of political and social possibility did claims of conscience produce and what did they close down?  This takes up a thread from the previous book, in what I see as an attempt to produce an anthropology of British liberalism and its limits. I have increasingly come to see the torture book as a book about some of the tensions of a post-colonial British state, between a particular type of liberalism, and its post-imperial residues. And I see this new project as an attempt to grapple with particularly British histories of liberty, and their entanglements with both violence and inequality.

Beyond conscientious objection to war, which you examine in this article, you have also analyzed contemporary conscience claims, such as evangelical Christians’ claims that freedom of conscience confers exemptions from nondiscrimination law. How has your historical research informed your approach to these contemporary claims, especially with reference to sincerity?

I am interested in the historical contingency of conscience. More particularly, one of my central concerns has been to think through how the valorization of conscience in particular times and particular places opens up and closes down particular projects of justice and injustice. This means asking whom does it allow to speak, and what does it allow them to say? What projects does it include and what does it exclude? This is not to say that there is no such thing as conscience. Instead, it is to examine the changing political and cultural implications of historically situated claims. This means exploring the types of subjects that claims of conscience conjure up, the forms of difference they can reproduce, and the conflicts they both create and mediate.

In the middle of the twentieth century, claims of conscience were widely associated with those who opposed war, but this is not obviously the case in the early years of the twenty-first century, as conscience has been harnessed to new causes and conflicts. The issues publicly thought to commonly engage our consciences have changed, and newspapers are more likely to write about conscientious objection to same-sex marriage or abortion, than war. On the conservative right, freedom of conscience has also become seen as the grounds for renewing a Christian civilization, as bulwark against atheism and secularism, and a practical way to defend a particular vision of moral life.

There are clear continuities, as well as some differences, between the conscientious objectors of the middle of the twentieth century and those of the twenty-first. Refusing to bake a cake celebrating a same-sex marriage is part of a tradition of standing apart to condemn the world around—although for many the issues may seem much more trivial than they did during the Second World War. Such claims of conscience stand in stark contrast though to those who were willing to get their hands dirty, to accept the costs that their stances entailed, such as by going to jail. This an approach seeks the privileges but not the sacrifices of conscience.

I think though that rather than lament the relative decline of enthusiasm for claims of conscience as a loss of liberal nerve or a failure of conviction, conscience should itself be seen as a right that is always liable to reproduce existing forms of inequality. It is not that the Christian right has subverted freedom of conscience, but that they are working in a much longer exclusionary tradition. In general I also think, that we are probably most tempted to talk about conscience when we have not found a way of talking about a difficult issue—we relegate it to deep personal beliefs and therefore seemingly end the discussion. The conscience classification depoliticizes what are fundamentally contentious issues, and conscience becomes a black box for things we do not know how to talk about.

Tobias Kelly’s research interests include human rights, war and peace, and political and legal anthropology. He has carried out ethnographic and archival research in Britain, Israel/Palestine, and at the UN. He is currently writing a book on conscientious objection. His most recent co-edited collection The Intimate Life of Dissent is available Open Access from UCL Press. He is co-editor of Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism and International Development, and co-editor of the Ethnographies of Political Violence series with University of Pennsylvania Press.






About Jennifer Curtis

Jennifer Curtis is an Honorary Fellow in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh:

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