Hints and Symbols

The prickling of spines

/ 05:02 AM June 24, 2019

The comments on Opinion articles are not easy to read; most of the time, I try not to look, especially lately. Of late, social media has been a particularly sickening place to be, as we were treated to examples of heroism and unity (Hong Kong) contrasted with division and hatred (our people’s).

It often causes me to wonder if my refusal to engage with trolls and rabid administration supporters means that I am creating an echo chamber where I, and others like me, can feel outraged about the same things, our views unchallenged. I also wonder if I am not deliberately neglecting to pay attention to the diverse number of voices who could offer something valuable, something life-changing, to the way I see the world and write about it.


In a bid to be more productive, we’re often told to disconnect from social media, which takes away time, focus, happiness. Have I not watched enough videos of toddlers covering Disney songs to last me a lifetime? But ultimately it does seem that social media has become an indispensable part of the way that many writers engage with the world. Without it, our view of humanity remains incomplete, because social media has made available for our consumption the experiences and lessons of an unimaginably diverse humanity.

I was thinking of this when “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” a critically acclaimed anime series from the 1990s, became available on Netflix recently, available for a new generation to enjoy. I was excited to rewatch in particular the widely praised fourth episode. In it, Shinji, the main character, a timid teenager reluctantly thrust into the role of piloting a “mecha” to combat aliens threatening the survival of humanity, faces the decision of whether to stay and fight, or flee and run away to his former life.


The episode is appropriately titled “Hedgehog’s Dilemma,” a reference to Arthur Schopenhauer’s metaphor for human intimacy. In it, porcupines need to huddle for warmth on a cold winter’s day, but suffer the sting of each other’s quills, driving them away from each other; the cold drives them together again, and so on. The need for human intimacy drives us together, but we are repelled by each other’s flaws and the inevitable trouble that intimacy brings.

In a world slouching closer and closer to what we’re told is the end, the show seems to be an apt metaphor for life in 2019. Hard-earned victories in social justice are all but forgotten in a regressing society. Racism and antimigrant sentiment is more alive now than ever. This decade has also seen the rise of right-wing and strongman politics here and abroad, a fact of which we are well aware. Daily we see the cost of human suffering. And recently we’ve been told that the end is nigh, not at the hands of mechas or aliens, but our own.

The suffering all around us is broadcast, in a way that was never accessible to generations before. We are close enough to feel the hedgehog spines. Social media makes it impossible to ignore the prickling. It makes us uncomfortable, and it’s meant to. I need social media to feel connected to the world, but the connection comes at a price. The warmth of connectedness, internet animals, human achievement and unity—all marred, for example, by the poisonous minds and comments of those who would judge, belittle or doubt the fishermen in the news. To know the world is to know its successes, but also to be exposed to amorality of big men and the pettiness of small minds.

Jonathan Franzen and other authors believe in the importance of complete disconnection from social media in order to write. Some authors like Neil Gaiman can’t seem to stay away, and have made social media a part of their creative process and their engagement with readers. The rest of us are in the middle, torn between the obligation and the desire to interact, versus the disgust we feel at the rest of mankind. All I know is that, like Shinji, I can’t get on the train to an isolated life and leave social media entirely — though I’m not in a hurry to dip into the comments section. Sometimes the shared warmth is worth the prickling of spines.

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