Saturday, August 13, 2011


Wall is an imprisoning four letter word.

50 years ago today, the city of Berlin, divided by a line on a map at the end of World War II, saw that line transformed into a physical manifestation as troops surrounded the western sector of the city with barbed wire.  Over the coming years, that wire would eventually turn into a ring of two walls, preventing residents of East Berlin, and all of East Germany, from escaping to safety in the west through West Berlin.  Although West Berlin was surrounded - they were not the prisoners.

It is an odd way to think about it - being a prisoner in one's own country or home, and yet being under "home arrest" is hardly unusual.  One can even be a prisoner and be perfectly free to travel, but be otherwise restrained in how one can act.  People may be released from physical custody, but still be restricted in what they can say or who they can talk to in their "freedom".    Even people otherwise perfectly free can feel imprisoned by haunts from their past or present.

Walls are not inherently bad.  Walls can create boundaries, privacy, and security.  If you're erecting a building, walls are there to help provide structure and safety.  And walls provide a perfect medium for art - from hanging an illuminated document or photograph to graffiti or a child's crayon drawing.  But we have to work hard to make sure that these reasons do not turn the area we have walled in to become a prison - the walls of a school can be there to define a space for learning and hold learning aids... but they can rapidly become a prison for the schoolchildren who yearn to get out.

People have asked me why I use the name Prisoner.  Originally, it was an homage to the British television program The Prisoner, which followed the attempts by one man to escape from a prison-without-walls known as The Village.  The show featured an authoritarian information gathering government; the desire and ability for the leaders to manipulate the residents of The Village; the human nature to be free.  Over time, I grew into the name, and the name grew up with me.  More than just being about a television show, it is the cloak I wear to help talk about these issues.  In recent weeks, it has become symbolic of itself - a statement that people should be free to choose everything about themselves, including their name.  They should not be trapped within the walls of arbitrary policy.

The walls of a naming policy are the same as that schoolhouse.  They provide some structure.  They provide the medium to exchange information about who we are.  But at the same time they are also providing a barrier to communication.  These policies do not provide the safety some say they should, and do just the opposite, threatening to collapse in and hurt those inside.  When handled incorrectly, they are a trap... a prison.

50 years ago today, a small path to freedom was nearly completely denied to an entire country.  It would take 28 years for the wall to crumble and the path to re-open.  There are many walls, physical and virtual, that have been built since.  May it take far less time for these to come down.

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