Truth, lies and the new anti-fake news law

APRIL 9 — There is this comic strip in which three men are asked what they enjoy doing in their free time. Each person mentions a particular hobby eg. playing a musical instrument, hiking, painting the house but the thought bubbles show them thinking just one thing: sex

Is reality, however, that straight-forward? Given the nature of sexual fantasies (and how the most satisfying fantasies require a framing narrative surrounding the sex act), the comic strip probably had it backwards: It should have shown the men saying, “I want to have sex!” whilst imagining different scenarios (e.g. at the symphony, on a mountain, in the backyard, etc.).

In other words, truth needs fiction. To speak what is true, one needs to couch it within that which isn’t. This is a critical Lacanian notion which states that the trauma of truth can only be glimpsed or encountered via a sideways glance; fiction and lies offer precisely such an awry conduit.

And this doesn’t apply only to sexuality; our social world cannot survive without fictions.

Corporate executives, when asked why they’re looking to switch organisations, always give semi-corny answers like, “I want a career change”, “I’m looking for more exciting opportunities”, “I want to learn more”. 

Somehow simply saying, “I want to earn more money” sounds like an impossible utterance, even though everybody understands financial benefits to be the more important reason.

Likewise, everybody knows that small talk is never small. The trivial “song and dance” before the start of business negotiations or talks are almost non-negotiable. Especially in Asia, is it really possible to have business discussions sans the small talk? 

Also, when forced to point out some embarrassing mistake (either by ourselves or others), we often cloak the communiqué in “polite laughter” lest we risk causing offense ─ which only makes the point that the truth can be painful.

Back to sexuality. 

Only schizophrenics like mathematician John Nash (as depicted in the Oscar-winning movie A Beautiful Mind) dare to “cut to the chase” during courtship and make the following remarks to his girlfriend, Alicia:

“I find you attractive (and I think) you feel the same way. But still, ritual requires that we continue with a number of platonic activities... before we have sex. I am proceeding with these activities, but in point of actual fact, all I really want to do is have intercourse with you as soon as possible.”

The “rituals” and “platonic activities” in question are nothing if not pure fiction, an illusory social lubricant to ease the parties involved to the true event of sex. Ironically, in the case of prostitution, the discarding of such rituals in fact signals “cheap” sex.

To repeat, truths require the form of lies. As Slavoj Žižek noted, “Fiction is constitutive of reality: if we take away the fiction, we lose reality itself.”

What does all the above have to do with the recent Anti-Fake News Bill, apparently the start of a trend which countries like Singapore and Philippines are also mulling? Ironically, such Bills act in an opposite manner i.e. it presents lies in the form of the truth.

Ostensibly, this Bill is about ensuring that all news is based on verified facts and credible sources. Yet, of course, those who oppose it say that the primary motive of such Bills is the suppression of news critical of the government. 

More generally, they constitute an assault on a country’s freedom of speech. In other words, in order to protect a lie (about government abuse, etc) we need a Bill about ensuring only the truth is disseminated.

This reminds me of an episode of Breaking Bad in which the lead character, Walter White, was mistakenly thought (by two other characters) to have killed a dangerous drug addict by dumping an ATM machine on him. 

When asked to confirm whether he did in fact kill the addict (“You killed that guy?!”), White replied with the absolute truth, “You didn’t hear it from me.”

Essentially, White was protecting a lie (that he killed the addict) by using the truth (that he hadn’t said a word about it). As Žižek noted, ideology is everything which follows the act of “cutting the bullshit.” 

Malaysia’s Anti-Fake News Bill is by and large a constitutional cutting of all the bullshit out there; it’s an ideological tour de force which proves how much reality requires “bullshit” and how the claim that, “We merely want to ensure people know the truth” is the most powerful piece of bullshit ever precisely because it comes in the opposite form.

But things get more paradoxical. 

Malaysia’s Anti-Fake News Bill defines “fake news” as including any news, information, data and reports which, in part or wholly, are false, whether in the form of features, visuals or audio recordings or any other form capable of suggesting words or ideas. 

Strictly speaking, this means that if someone says, “How are you?” to me and I answer “I’m fine” despite having a bad headache, I can by prosecuted under that law. 

Strictly speaking, if I write an article about, say, chicken rice in Malaysia and I include a funny story from 2007 about a guy called Lam (but whose name is actually Lim, but I forgot given my poor memory), I can be prosecuted despite the guy’s name being entirely inconsequential to the story and despite memory being akin to encoding “pieces of light” (as per Charles Fernyhough’s amazing book) then later reconstructed in the service of narrative.

Strictly speaking, if I write about China and I say it’s like a dragon which, after sleeping for a few decades, has finally woken up, I can be prosecuted (or my article can be taken down) because who can possibly “verify” whether or not China is like an ancient mythical beast? 

Strictly speaking, every novel ever published stands to be banned under that piece of legislature.

The problem with the Bill, therefore, is not only does it involve a manipulation of truth in the service of fiction, it comically fails to grasp the idea (discussed above) that truth demands fiction. 

There simply is no truth without some fiction. To threaten to eliminate ALL “fake news” isn’t merely an assault on the freedom of speech, it’s also an affront to its beauty, efficacy, recall and its very existence.

 * This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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