Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Comment Type #31


Master Sarge
Pulling rank is when a superior officer uses their rank (and thus the power it holds) to end an argument. A direct order may not be willfully disobeyed or ignored by an inferior rank unless the order is directly immoral or unlawful order (i.e. "Private, go rob that bank so I can run off to Bermuda with my six mistresses"). So when you pull rank, you can force someone in an inferior rank to shut up, obey, or agree. This is useful in time of war to shut up debate or to compel action when it is needed, but at other times it is simply abuse of authority.

But this isn't the only place someone can pull rank. Parents can do it with children, bosses with employees, and so on. All that is required is a position of recognized authority. In the context of commenting, this can take a lot of different forms.

Most often, people will claim authority or experience that the other person lacks, or will point to the time they've spent on a blog or message board as evidence of their higher skill and authority. Sometimes this works well, because it will be a correction of misconceptions or a clarification. A person who works at a library can clear up a technical matter of library policy, or someone who has spent 15 years programming in UNIX can point out just how silly the portrayal was of the little girl reprogramming the GUI system in Jurassic Park.

But most often, it's simply an ad hominem appeal to authority that is without logical weight and simply an attempt to shut up the opposition.

At An Army Lawyer, commenters ran into an interesting event in the armylawyer's examination of a recent decision by a district court on the NSA surveillance program. A commenter tried to pull rank and shut up discussion in this manner:

OK, I missed the Sealed Case, but the “take for granted . . . ” is footnoted by contrary opinion.

I agree that’s it’s time for me to do something more useful, trying to dissuade you from your worship at the Church of Statism seems futile. You’re very arrogant for a newbie
O-3 JAG who’s never been deployed, and it grates on me, as I have been deployed and have a couple of grades on you.

I’ll let you play in your sandbox undisturbed from now on. I will look forward to your posts when you go to Iraq, though - hopefully you’ll be assigned to some civil affairs work so you get outside the wire once in awhile. War often causes the scales to fall from innocents’ eyes.

As you can see, this commenter is attempting to dismiss the argument being made based not on its merits or the point being made - he even admitted that he failed to take into account what the other person was saying. He's simply maintaining that the other person is wrong because he's at a lower rank and less experienced.

Pulling Rank should only be done to help, clarify, and assist, not to simply shut up someone. If you cannot manage to use logic and facts to convince and change a mind, then that person isn't likely to heed your attempt to pull rank in any case. Further, in an anonymous forum, anyone can claim any manner of authority and experience, valid or not. This sort of weakens the impact, because Pulling Rank only works if the rank puller actually has recognized authority. You cannot successfully assert authority without some sort of backing from society or law any more than a stumbling lunatic walking down the sidewalk can convince you he's the voice of God rather than a MD20/20-reeking bum.

Don't Pull Rank just to shut someone up, don't assert authority you don't have or cannot demonstrate online. If you must Pull Rank, only do so to help clarify or assist, not to crush opposition; to benefit the commenting community.

This is part of the Profiles in Commenting series.
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