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Ad Hominem Attacks

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We've all done it. We're all guilty of it. The best way to avoid it is if we understand what exactly constitutes argumentum ad hominem (argument directed at the person). The short and sweet answer is:

The relevant question is not who makes the argument, but whether the argument is valid. 1

Most debates on the internet are of "very low quality."2 They fail logically. They often devolve into abusive rants. This deters members from posting comments or articles. It destroys community. It also defeats the beauty of debate and dissent. As this forum encourages debate, we want our comments to be "above the fray." The ideas presented below are a small sampling of the discussion on ad hominem attacks that can be found on the web.

"An [ad hominem] argument is based on the failings of an adversary rather than on the merits of the case; [it is] a logical fallacy that involves a personal attack."3

"An argument that is ad hominem is one that has deviated from the claims being made and has instead focused on the person making the claims."4

"The abusive ad hominem is not just a case of directing abusive language toward another person. . . . The fallacy is committed when one engages in a personal attack as a means of ignoring, discrediting, or blunting the force of another's argument.

"Although some faulty arguers may call attention to distasteful features of their opponents in order to manipulate the responses of their audience, most abusers apparently believe that such characteristics actually provide good reasons for ignoring or discrediting the arguments of those who have them. Logically, of course, the fact that any of these characteristics might fit an opponent provides no reason to ignore or discredit his or her arguments or criticisms." 5

People's motives, their intelligence, their race, party affiliation, national origin, religion, gender, sexual orientation, employer, etc. is irrelevant to the debate. Commenting on someone's features whether true or not misdirects the audience through potent insults in an illogical attempt to discredit the ideas put forth. Just because someone is "stupid" does not mean the argument has no merit. That's a logical fallacy. By hurling insults, questioning the person's motives, or employer, you engage in ad hominem attacks.

But, this is only the most obvious form of ad hominem attacks. They can be subtle, too.

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"[Another] manifestation of argumentum ad hominem is attacking a source of information -- for example, responding to a quotation from Richard Nixon on the subject of free trade with China by saying, "We all know Nixon was a liar and a cheat, so why should we believe anything he says?"

"Argumentum ad hominem also occurs when someone's arguments are discounted merely because they stand to benefit from the policy they advocate -- such as Bill Gates arguing against antitrust, rich people arguing for lower taxes, white people arguing against affirmative action, minorities arguing for affirmative action, etc. In all of these cases, the relevant question is not who makes the argument, but whether the argument is valid."6

Keeping the bolded part in mind makes it easy to recognize whether a comment is ad hominem or valid. Here are some more forms of argumentum ad hominem:

When you try to "persuade someone to accept a statement you make, by referring to that person's particular circumstances. For example:

'It is perfectly acceptable to kill animals for food. I hope you won't argue otherwise, given that you're quite happy to wear leather shoes.'

"This is known as circumstantial argumentum ad hominem. The fallacy can also be used as an excuse to reject a particular conclusion. For example:

'Of course you'd argue that positive discrimination is a bad thing. You're white.'

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"This particular form of Argumentum ad Hominem, when you allege that someone is rationalizing a conclusion for selfish reasons, is also known as 'poisoning the well.'

It's not always invalid to refer to the circumstances of an individual who is making a claim. If someone is a known perjurer or liar, that fact will reduce their credibility as a witness. It won't, however, prove that their testimony is false in this case. It also won't alter the soundness of any logical arguments they may make."7

Watch when making "you" statements. 'You' or 'your' is a tip-off you're about to personalize something.

"[T]he truth of an assertion doesn't depend on the virtues of the person asserting it."8

San Jose State University characterizes the most frequent ad hominem appeals as attacks on:

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In 2004, Rady Ananda joined the growing community of citizen journalists. Initially focused on elections, she investigated the 2004 Ohio election, organizing, training and leading several forays into counties to photograph the 2004 ballots. She officially served at three recounts, including the 2004 recount. She also organized and led the team that audited Franklin County Ohio's 2006 election, proving the number of voter signatures did not match official results. Her work appears in three books.

Her blogs also address religious, gender, sexual and racial equality, as well as environmental issues; and are sprinkled with book and film reviews on various topics. She spent most of her working life as a researcher or investigator for private lawyers, and five years as an editor.

She graduated from The Ohio State University's School of Agriculture in December 2003 with a B.S. in Natural Resources.

All material offered here is the property of Rady Ananda, copyright 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009. Permission is granted to repost, with proper attribution including the original link.

"In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act." Tell the truth anyway.

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Thank you for "ad hominem 101." It is ha... by editnetwork on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 4:56:33 AM
It's disgusting - I'm sorry you've com... by Rady Ananda on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 7:51:17 AM
While I applaud your call to improve the quality o... by William White on Wednesday, Jan 7, 2009 at 8:04:17 AM
there's a single maxim in the field of investi... by Rady Ananda on Wednesday, Jan 7, 2009 at 12:29:45 PM
...from my logic professor at Cal Poly, San Luis O... by Richard Volaar on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 6:33:57 AM
Thanks Richard - this is exactly where the topic l... by Rady Ananda on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 7:55:01 AM
versus liberal issue but one tour of Dailykos and ... by Linn Cohen-Cole on Thursday, Jan 8, 2009 at 10:18:08 PM
thanks for sharing it, Lynn.  (and thanks for... by Rady Ananda on Saturday, Jan 10, 2009 at 12:54:46 AM
Naturally, people that comment on sites such as op... by jersey girl on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 7:00:38 AM
(taking time out - sleeping on it, before posting ... by Rady Ananda on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 8:03:01 AM
No attack meant but two questions:1) Who are ambas... by Reverend Anthony Wade on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 3:49:08 PM
... white hair, that lives in some liberal state, ... by Mr M on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 7:18:30 AM
there are some key people with influence who can l... by Rady Ananda on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 7:58:49 AM
 try to drop in between studies... by Mr M on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 8:50:02 AM
her hair was blonde.... by Meryl Ann Butler on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 3:57:37 PM
Let's call it platinum blonde :)... by jersey girl on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 4:35:41 PM
it's a lovely shade!  ;-)... by Meryl Ann Butler on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 5:36:35 PM
Let's call it platinum blonde :)... by jersey girl on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 4:51:14 PM
... everyone knows blondes are dumb, and Rady is n... by Mr M on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 5:04:09 PM
I'm speechless... by Meryl Ann Butler on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 5:35:59 PM
lemme fess up (shhh); that bio pic is 5 yrs old. t... by Rady Ananda on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 6:01:13 PM
You'd be the Methusala of mice.... by Brett Paatsch on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 6:59:30 PM
shade of brown... by Meryl Ann Butler on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 8:09:25 PM
...MY what a beautiful home!... by Richard Volaar on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 8:25:29 PM
you all crack me up - out loud laughing...living 9... by Rady Ananda on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 8:45:15 PM
... glad you lost the facial hair though.... by Mr M on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 9:36:12 PM
::giggle::Adorable. ...I have a friend who'd p... by Jennifer Hathaway on Wednesday, Jan 7, 2009 at 12:25:33 PM
I can't say that I understood this well-writte... by Suzana Megles on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 8:30:05 AM
I hope you keep at it.  I wish I could write ... by Rady Ananda on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 10:15:57 AM
It took me a while to realize that people sincerel... by Darren Wolfe on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 8:36:28 AM
I've been accused of all manner of things - at... by Rady Ananda on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 11:21:52 AM
Did not Mr. Wolfe just commit an ad hominem attack... by WML on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 2:06:55 PM
There's nothing ad hominem about the quote. Vo... by Darren Wolfe on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 8:52:49 PM
You are so right in this Rady, kudos for bringing ... by Steve Windisch (jibbguy) on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 8:45:09 AM
what I may not have made clear in the article, you... by Rady Ananda on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 10:35:06 AM
and my response turned out to be so long, I made i... by Steven Leser on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 8:55:42 AM
thanks for posting them, Steve.... by Rady Ananda on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 1:37:35 PM
I confess to straying into the ad hominem at times... by James Hadstate on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 9:09:54 AM
I reserve my right to attack  any public figu... by Mark Sashine on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 9:19:59 AM
 but how is calling them traitors different t... by jersey girl on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 10:00:37 AM
I need to explain: I am perfectly OK if someone ca... by Mark Sashine on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 10:07:20 AM
I agree wholeheartedly..... by jersey girl on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 10:21:12 AM
I'm sorry Mark. I'm sure you meant serial ... by Rob Kall on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 2:29:54 PM
How disappointing. I was just contemplating the wh... by Paula Sayles on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 4:01:54 PM
A very important post, Rady. Thank you. Note that ... by Jim Eldon on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 9:30:23 AM
It sounds perfect. I forever confuse inductiv... by Rady Ananda on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 11:09:19 AM
called ' Cereal Rapists' in my diaries'... by Mark Sashine on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 10:00:57 AM
... they got holes in em ... getting them fo fit i... by Mr M on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 3:00:00 PM
skilled at being editors.  The reason I don&#... by Brett Paatsch on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 10:16:59 AM
I am actually surprised many here even know I am a... by Steven Leser on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 4:05:14 PM
You do use your editorial powers rarely. ... by reasonableperson on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 7:19:16 PM
However, I have written a few articles for OpEd an... by Paula Sayles on Wednesday, Jan 7, 2009 at 7:58:38 AM
For those interested in the common fallacies of de... by DC Rapier on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 10:40:34 AM
thanks, DC ~ we need them here, too!... by Rady Ananda on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 12:33:46 PM
Rady,I couldn't agree more with the idea that ... by Mikhail Lyubansky on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 10:50:15 AM
as distasteful as I find that part of their belief... by Steven Leser on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 5:14:14 PM
Look at it this way, Steve.  Say you have a f... by Mikhail Lyubansky on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 8:27:08 PM
The definition of Argumentum ad Hominem refutes yo... by Rady Ananda on Wednesday, Jan 7, 2009 at 6:36:58 AM
Mikhail, thanks for your thoughtful comments. See... by Rady Ananda on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 8:06:51 PM
I like experts to cite their sources too.  Di... by Mikhail Lyubansky on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 8:30:06 PM
Luckily, and I sincerely mean it, I have a lot of ... by Rob Kall on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 11:08:05 AM
hide rather than delete?Hiding is recoverable in t... by Brett Paatsch on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 11:37:37 AM
Hey Rob ~ Since you've gone to bat for me more... by Rady Ananda on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 1:57:01 PM
Ad Hominem! Ad Hominem! There's nothing "... by Mr M on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 3:12:50 PM
Ever since college, when I figured out that I was ... by Rob Kall on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 7:30:46 PM
it's directed at me.Let me ask you, Rady and R... by GLloyd Rowsey on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 11:43:54 AM
now and then, and I even confess to agreeing with ... by Daniel Geery on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 11:50:52 AM
Just make sure you attack what's being said an... by Kevin Gosztola on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 11:57:17 AM
There has been times when articles written by John... by Brett Paatsch on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 12:13:35 PM
For people like Conyers, the best criticism is cri... by Kevin Gosztola on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 12:49:27 PM
True personal attacks on the character or behavior... by Brett Paatsch on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 1:20:31 PM
I understand the hesitation to use volunteer edito... by Rady Ananda on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 1:00:51 PM
I value my own time highly though. I want to be ab... by Brett Paatsch on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 1:36:54 PM
... when picking-up the nearest blunt object and b... by Mr M on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 3:24:10 PM
but Rob and all you editors are seriously out of t... by GLloyd Rowsey on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 2:09:35 PM
1- we will add a suggestion box soon.2- Your compl... by Rob Kall on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 2:39:19 PM
But I want to round out a logical and coherent (to... by GLloyd Rowsey on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 3:59:32 PM
First, any publisher has the right to edit. Censor... by Rob Kall on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 7:37:09 PM
You are, I think, a good American but it is a very... by Brett Paatsch on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 6:52:53 PM
 Perhaps such enlightened “ambassadors ... by Chas on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 1:04:47 PM
There is a different standard for public figures r... by Mikhail Lyubansky on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 1:24:38 PM
 ‘Progressive liberals’ throw the... by Chas on Thursday, Jan 8, 2009 at 10:58:33 PM
...Roe v. Wade was NOT, repeat NOT, about abortion... by Richard Volaar on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 9:23:51 PM
 You missed the point... I disagree with you,... by Chas on Thursday, Jan 8, 2009 at 11:06:28 PM
and your focus on civility and your ability to abi... by Linda Milazzo on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 1:06:43 PM
of all the committees I've served on, the OEN ... by Rady Ananda on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 1:36:30 PM
I go onto right wing sites a lot and follow all ki... by Gustav Wynn on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 1:27:22 PM
Thanks Rady for a very good piece and yes, I can r... by virginius "gin" arnold on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 2:57:49 PM
Thank you for sharing a path for us to argue more ... by Adam Bessie on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 4:03:52 PM
Hate to interject some reality here but the issue ... by Reverend Anthony Wade on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 4:04:08 PM
I do not like being told who I am, what I think, a... by Melody Clark on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 4:22:27 PM
Really nice article, Rady.  You clearly demon... by Debbie Scally on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 4:28:29 PM
lol... thanks so much for all your efforts in the ... by Rady Ananda on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 8:11:48 PM
This is one of those things that makes me want to ... by Jim Finley on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 4:42:41 PM
Educational, enlightening, and much needed.Liberal... by Mad Jayhawk on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 4:53:06 PM
I definitely believe that we may very well save th... by Steven Leser on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 5:19:31 PM
For an example, see this article of mine, http://w... by Steven Leser on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 5:34:30 PM
I learned something-----always thought it was sp l... by virginius "gin" arnold on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 6:07:21 PM
Jay – thanks for the respect you've shown me in e... by Rady Ananda on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 5:56:36 PM
However, I would like to add that I have quite a b... by Paula Sayles on Wednesday, Jan 7, 2009 at 9:08:07 AM
      Thanks Rady and com... by mary sunshine on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 5:15:13 PM
... tongue-in-cheek, let me assure you it was ... ... by Mr M on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 11:36:41 PM
While I knew much of this in general, it was good ... by Meryl Ann Butler on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 5:26:45 PM
Meryl Ann ~ First, thank you for your kind words.R... by Rady Ananda on Friday, Jan 9, 2009 at 1:01:16 PM
And thank you for a great article! It sure has eve... by Meryl Ann Butler on Friday, Jan 9, 2009 at 9:46:42 PM
You're gonna sharpen my understanding, Meryl A... by Rady Ananda on Saturday, Jan 10, 2009 at 9:17:27 AM
Rady, you have given a wonderful example in yourse... by William Whitten on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 5:56:49 PM
thanks William - I have no doubt you are correct:"... by Rady Ananda on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 6:26:56 PM
I've been banned at so many places that I lost... by Steve Consilvio on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 6:22:21 PM
thank you... all good ideas to keep in mind (excep... by Rady Ananda on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 8:19:59 PM
... he's obviously too intelligent for this si... by Mr M on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 9:43:11 PM
An ad hominem attack should be seen as bait and no... by John Hanks on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 6:25:10 PM
keeping ad hominem attacks out of a conversation m... by Rob Kall on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 7:44:54 PM
... when listening to English Parliament, it seems... by Mr M on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 9:33:05 PM
Thank you for your very helpful article.  I w... by Kenneth Barr on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 7:18:55 PM
broke a sweat.  I appreciate Rady showing exa... by Patrick Lafferty on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 7:55:20 PM
The question of "who paid for the study" is not re... by Joy Sabl on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 7:57:47 PM
of why who funded the research makes all the diffe... by Mikhail Lyubansky on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 8:39:58 PM
I wholly agree with you, Joy. But this piece is Ad... by Rady Ananda on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 8:35:47 PM
Live spoken extemporaneous debate bears little res... by Nick Lento on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 9:23:15 PM
I apprecciate all that has been said so far, thank... by Nick Lento on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 8:59:02 PM
I dunno. I spent so much time honing my chops on B... by Theresa "Darklady" Reed on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 9:13:39 PM
If only those in office had this much going for th... by Mr M on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 9:27:47 PM
That is something I know about... by virginius "gin" arnold on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 10:12:12 PM
...for being a 9/11 Truther?... by daveys on Tuesday, Jan 6, 2009 at 11:53:01 PM
I'm sure 9/11 truthers will still be called nu... by jersey girl on Wednesday, Jan 7, 2009 at 5:55:23 AM
I'm sure 9/11 truthers will still be called nu... by jersey girl on Wednesday, Jan 7, 2009 at 5:58:15 AM
Anybody that knows the truth of 911 is not on... by Patrick Lafferty on Wednesday, Jan 7, 2009 at 1:24:19 PM
Then that would qualify you as Secretary of the In... by Dave Kisor on Wednesday, Jan 7, 2009 at 12:23:35 AM
Uh, you chose this topic just to get 100 plus resp... by Michael Collins on Wednesday, Jan 7, 2009 at 12:53:23 AM
lol... I'll tell ya, Michael - I have no idea ... by Rady Ananda on Wednesday, Jan 7, 2009 at 7:11:21 AM
Nice article- could've lived without the offen... by Susanna Astarte on Wednesday, Jan 7, 2009 at 2:03:48 AM
or perhaps the right explanation is that they have... by Alexis Knapp on Wednesday, Jan 7, 2009 at 9:43:06 AM
An ad hominem argument, to my understanding, is on... by Andrew Fletcher on Wednesday, Jan 7, 2009 at 10:02:38 AM
One quick comment, some folks fail to appreciate w... by Tom Murphy on Wednesday, Jan 7, 2009 at 10:49:44 AM
We really would appreciate hearing from conservati... by Richard Volaar on Wednesday, Jan 7, 2009 at 12:15:17 PM
  Tired of the enlightening battle for r... by Chas on Thursday, Jan 8, 2009 at 11:24:42 PM
Way to go, Rady!With all this talk about change, i... by Paula Sayles on Wednesday, Jan 7, 2009 at 12:52:05 PM
for the kudos, and for adding to the discussion ab... by Rady Ananda on Wednesday, Jan 14, 2009 at 6:45:40 PM
As a bloke who has been in the thick of debating t... by Lover of Truth on Wednesday, Jan 7, 2009 at 1:40:31 PM
A man who has the cunning intellect ... by Patrick Lafferty on Wednesday, Jan 7, 2009 at 7:52:18 PM
Well, heck I don't want to be the only mammal not ... by MJ Creech on Wednesday, Jan 7, 2009 at 2:50:06 PM
New way of discussing: (You logical minds are goin... by Brett Paatsch on Friday, Jan 9, 2009 at 9:02:03 PM
One more point: people argue or discuss on differe... by MJ Creech on Wednesday, Jan 7, 2009 at 2:59:39 PM
"Enjoy your discussion on personal attacks, b... by daveys on Thursday, Jan 8, 2009 at 1:00:41 AM
"Time for you to evolve Tom, and realize that... by Tom Murphy on Friday, Jan 9, 2009 at 9:33:51 AM
this looks like ad hominem AND straw man.&nbs... by Rady Ananda on Friday, Jan 9, 2009 at 2:44:41 PM
to the exclusion of other impediments to having sm... by Brett Paatsch on Friday, Jan 9, 2009 at 9:16:34 PM
Hey Marj~ Nice to read you! lol Good points; a... by Rady Ananda on Thursday, Jan 8, 2009 at 1:03:58 AM
loads of illogical arguments...circular reasoning,... by kenshin on Thursday, Jan 8, 2009 at 1:06:56 AM
Well, according to the scoring of my responses on ... by Tom Murphy on Friday, Jan 9, 2009 at 2:03:27 PM
what does that say that I also scored as a Rationa... by Rady Ananda on Friday, Jan 9, 2009 at 2:29:47 PM
like this one, in a forum like this one, one has c... by Brett Paatsch on Friday, Jan 9, 2009 at 8:53:52 PM
the reference pool has changed.but it is interesti... by Rady Ananda on Saturday, Jan 10, 2009 at 12:21:56 AM
it is interesting that you can fluctuate between p... by Brett Paatsch on Saturday, Jan 10, 2009 at 9:03:10 PM
They're the people who use words like "Be... by Jennifer Hathaway on Friday, Jan 9, 2009 at 9:38:57 PM
lol... by Rady Ananda on Saturday, Jan 10, 2009 at 12:36:17 AM
I'd like to disagree with the basis of the article... by Chester Marzolf on Monday, Jan 12, 2009 at 12:20:58 PM
You are so right about Roe vs Wade not being about... by Chester Marzolf on Tuesday, Jan 13, 2009 at 5:50:39 PM