One of the many things that vexes me about the state of civil discourse these days has to do with qualifications, or more precisely, disqualifications. We have too many news and opinion shows on too many channels and blogs and twitters, all going 24/7. All of these outlets need people to voice opinions--otherwise, no show, and no ad revenue. But what does it take to be one of these opinion-spinners?
The qualifications are minimal. One can earn an advanced degree in seemingly any field, or you can be at a think-tank, or you can be an elected official, or you can have an obsessive blog about a particular subject, or be eloquent, or telegenic, or family of someone relevant, or any of a number of other things. All of these things, whatever their true worth at forming an educated opinion, apparently qualify you to share your opinion with lots of people, and try to sway their opinions.
What distresses me is not how easy it is to gain qualification as an opinion-maker. It is, rather, how it is nearly impossible to be disqualified as an opinioneer. There are too many people whose opinions are given far too much weight, based on how their previous opinions or policies have played out in the real world. They should, one thinks, be disqualified from having publicly broadcast opinions on these matters. We really should never have to listen to a news or opinion piece on human rights from Henry Kissinger, on middle-eastern policy from Dick Cheney, on defence policy from Don Rumsfeld, on presidential powers from John Yoo, on appropriate workplace behavior from Bill Clinton, and so on--except, perhaps to hear them say, "whatever you do, make it the opposite of what I did". But banning people is not the solution, or consistent with our constitution.
So, I argue for the return of the epithet. You may remember epithets from Homer and his ilk: swift-footed Achilles, Eos of the rosy fingers. In documented history, you have kings such as Ethelred the Unready or Ivan the Terrible. These adjectival phrases become part of the character's name. Epithets help us to grasp the essential nature of the person, and they're not always flattering.
There are certain positions or clearly stated opinions--not off-the-cuff remarks, but publicly declared views--that have been tested by time, and found stupid or odious. They become less like opinions and more like falsified hypotheses that are still, despite evidence, clung to. I propose that these should become epithets. However, it doesn't really advance public discourse when you reduce a talking head's world-view to a single adjective like "unready" or "terrible." A more useful and informative epithet, one that would help the audience to weigh an opinion, would be something such as "who thought Sarah Palin would be a good president" or "who reckons that bombing Iran would be constructive," to suggest a few that would apply to the Honorable Senator John McCain.
How does one deal with a bulky and cumbersome epithet such as this? A solution is provided by repurposing yet another scourge of public discourse, the Chyron. Chyrons (the name is apparently a trademark and has nothing to do with the centaur who taught Achilles; they are also called crawls or "the bottom third") are those lines of text that pollute the bottom of a TV screen whenever there is a talking head spouting opinions. They are generally full of garbage, or take the talking head's opinion an reduce it to one phrase of mush. Either way, they do nothing useful. I suggest taking the Chyron and using it to show the talking head's epithet.
Here's an example: nowadays, we see James Inhofe's head talking above lines of text saying "Sen (R) Okla / Jets 14 Ravens 3 (final) / Dow up 13 3/8 / Did Rhianna cheat on Ussher? / Volcanic eruption in Hawaii threatens golf course..." and so on. Instead, we should see James Inhofe talking above lines of text saying "despite a century of accumulated scientific evidence and the assurances of pretty much everybody who has studied them, he refuses to place any credence in biological evolution or anthropogenic climate change. Also gets lots of money from fossil fuel business." That way the viewer would know the talking head is venal and committed to ignorance on not just one, but two, and probably lots of issues.
It might be argued that this would stifle free discussion of important issues. But, if you consistently have opinions that the passage of time have shown to be clearly dumb and harmful, it seems that your views should be branded. If you're stupid on one topic, fine, opine on others--and if you trip on those, you will accumulate more tar and more feathers, for all to see. It's been noted that, in the internet age, that a PhD does not automatically confer wisdom, and that formal qualifications have become less important. Right now, civil discourse has an urgent need for disqualifications.
(signed) J. A. Appleman...for a while, thought corn-based ethanol was a reasonable alternative energy source...
I'll put a few possibilities in the comments...please add your own.