You did ask for thoughts.
Humans seem to have an obsessive need to quantify things: job titles; race; IQ; status; etc. There is a benefit to this because it allows us to make quick mostly/sometimes reliable judgements on things. In theory, belt colors and ranks can help with this sort of thing.
Think of this quantification another way. It's the IT Guy, the Pepsi Guy, the Aikido Guy, the Black Guy, the Jewish Guy (thank you Magma and CA for this) and ask if that quantification is always beneficial? What happens is that quantification sublimates a level of having to look at and understand who a person is. It makes for laziness. As I've said before, I suggest that all yudansha put on a white belt and attend a seminar where no one knows them, it might be an eye-opener. Look at the recent discussions on hakama. Like it or not, as a general rule, people defer to those who appear to be above them. The one thing I thank Bill Clinton for is putting some humanity into the White House, although maybe more humanity than I'd have asked for.
Rank also separates people: mudansha from yudansha, shihan from non-shihan (how many non-Japanese, non-male shihan are there?), us and them (managers and non-managers).
And does rank really recognize ability or commitment? In Judo, you go out, bounce around a bunch of higher ranked people and you move up a notch. In Aikido, it's much more subjective. Terry Dobsen trained with O'Sensei for several years, continued his practice after that, made a significant contribution to the art, in my opinion, yet he was only a 5th dan. I dunno, maybe something else weighed in his rank, maybe he wasn't that good, maybe he needed to kiss more booty, maybe he didn't care, I don't know.
I've also seen rank play into power struggles. A Tae Kwon Do instructor who owned a school where some of us Aikidoists also hung out refused a promotion to 6th dan because he would have been under a certain guy and would have had to call him master (and he wondered why I wouldn't call him master when I didn't even do Tae Kwon Do?). This same play definitely goes on in Aikido circles or any system involving rank. A lot more probably goes on behind the scenes that most of us don't see directly.
Rank can also be a revenue generator. I know of schools (one Aikido) where there are many ranks (lots of tests), lots of belt colors (sell more belts) and most importantly lots of fees. I would also challenge that there is any organization collecting fees that doesn't enjoy a cash benefit from ranking. I'm not sure this is bad and maybe it's even the right thing as organizations theoretically do provide value (another thread?) and rank has a value. I've seen organizations suggest seminar rates based on dan ranking ($100/dy per dan rank).
I've also seen rank do good things. Sometimes, a promotion can push someone past a sticking point. The new rank causes them to achieve levels of ability they wouldn't have otherwise--it pushes them. I was initially motivated by rank. It acted as a target/measure for my ability. It gave me a standard to reach.
I was also promoted once to push others. Students stagnated at a certain level so I was promoted past that point. It made for an interesting few months as not everyone whom I was promoted past found me deserving. Of course, it wasn't like I was any better pre/post ranking. I will say that it was an interesting experience to own rank in that situation.
At the dojo I currently train at, I've argued for rank more often than not (doing away with it has been discussed) because if we are going to do Aikido, rank is part of the equation. The community will expect it, and if we are going to have a place in it representative of our ability and commitment, well, you need rank. People don't listen to no-ranks or even shodan, the way they do yondan or whatever. Maybe this is an argument for doing away with rank?
I guess I'm rambling here a bit--a lot--and I couldn't even tell you if I think rank is good or not after all that. On one level, I think rank (and people's tendency to quantify things) causes tremendous unnecessary grief. I'd like to think we could do without it and things would be great. On the other hand, virtually every single system that has achieved some level of consistent success uses a method of quantifying people.
Good or bad? Lots and lots of both!
PS: Those of you, who support rank in Aikido, and there seem to be a lot of you, how do you feel about rank in business? Being classified and graded as something: manager or non-manager; group 4's or 3's; Jr./Sr.; partner, jr. partner; VP, Pres, Senior VP, Jr. VP; etc. Do you feel it's any different here?
[Edited by Erik on September 7, 2000 at 01:07pm]