Sep 18, 2014 · 3 minutes

There's an odd obsession with learning something's "true name" in most fantasy literature. This name is said to give a person incredible power over whoever it is they're trying to control -- and because this power would create problems if it were attached to the name someone is given at birth, it is instead concerned with the "name" that describes who someone is in their most basic sense. (Younger readers might remember this concept best from the Inheritance Cycle; others will know that it's been common in fantasy writing and role-playing games for ages.)

By now you're probably wondering what I could possibly be talking about, and I don't blame you. The idea that someone could have a name that's "truer" than the one given to them at birth, the one they've answered to for most of their lives, seems crazy to many people. But there's at least one group -- besides those who felt that someone's name, or even their body, doesn't describe how they see themselves and created role-playing games to help fill that void --  that understands this concept, and it's proving to be a problem.

Facebook has been suspending the accounts of people whose names don't appear to fall under its "real name" policy. Those with unique names, especially long middle names, or names taken because they better match someone's gender or sexual identity have been targeted by Facebook for violating that policy, and as Quartz explains, that is both discriminatory and dangerous:

Facebook has a responsibility to address the existential issues it has placed on some of its users. “No response” is not an answer. Putting users’ lives in danger, as is the case with abuse victims and some LGBT users, is unacceptable conduct for any social network. For Facebook to enforce such a policy only months after having allowed gender-variant users to choose from dozens of gender options is incongruous at best and hypocritical at worst. If the site wants to rely so heavily on its users’ data for its paid targeting and advertising products, it must provide a platform on which users are comfortable and willing to share that data.

Facebook’s “real name” policy is now creating users who are afraid of being outed, victimized, fired, or otherwise negatively impacted—a far cry from the “safe community” Facebook espouses to be. The backlash against this policy shows just how foolish a "real name" requirement for joining a social network really is. Besides its supposed commitment to discourage bullying and its need to give advertisers as much data as possible, Facebook has no reason to require that its users go by the name on their driver's license instead of the one with which they've identified for years.

Perhaps the company could implement a policy that requires a real identity instead of a real name. Why should Facebook care if Michelle used to be called Michael, so long as Michelle is now answering to that name and using it in her daily life? When was Facebook granted the right to decide when someone's middle name is a few characters too long for its platform?

A rule like that would probably discourage bullying just as much as forbidding people from going by the name "XxSatanLoverxX" ever would. (Which is to say, not much.) It would also allow people whose birth names no longer describe who they are as a person, or who were born with odd names, to use the service without being told that their identities are no longer valid.

Names have a lot of power, and I don't mean that in the fantastical sense of the word as I described above. They determine how we see ourselves and each other. They allow us to play with language to choose a name that better describes us than the one assigned to us at birth. They are an important part of being human, and Facebook would do well to respect that.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]