Rhetoric for Radicals: A Handbook for Twenty-First Century Activists
By Jason Del Gandio
235 pp. New Society Publishers – Nov. 2008. $17.95.

Radical activists are in the midst of a crisis. They have important messages to share, but they don’t do nearly a good enough job of communicating those messages to the general public. And their messages and actions too easily fall victim to the distortions of skewed, corporate mass media and the remonstrations of political pundits. In short, radical activists find themselves in a rhetorical crisis—one that urgently needs to be addressed if they are to have any chance of changing the world.

That’s the assessment of Jason Del Gandio, himself a longtime radical activist and professor of rhetoric and communication at Philadelphia’s Temple University. In his book Rhetoric for Radicals, Del Gandio entreats his fellow radicals to recognize the importance of effective communication, and then proceeds to outline the basics of writing, public speaking, body rhetoric and other rhetorical mainstays.

Rhetoric for Radicals is intended for college-aged activists and organizers, and for the most part it’s written in a relaxed, approachable style. It does get a bit cerebral and academic in places—in demonstrating how the book builds on the previous literature—but this material is kept to a minimum. On the whole, Rhetoric for Radicals is an invaluable, comprehensive how-to book that will greatly benefit beginning and seasoned rhetors alike.

Del Gandio begins the book with a “call to rhetorical action,” followed by a debunking of some commonly held misconceptions about the role of rhetoric in radical social change. Among these misconceptions are that “a big heart alone can change the world” and that “rehearsal and craft make our communication less authentic.” After this initial setup, Del Gandio moves to the heart of the book: sets of rules and strategies to follow when crafting a piece of rhetoric—be it a persuasive newspaper column, a story, a speech or a street theater vignette.

The first of these “labors of the multitude” to be tackled is public speaking. Del Gandio acknowledges the courage that it takes to speak in front of a group, and lays out practical tips on how to deal with this, as well as on how to become a better speaker and hold people’s attention. Of primary importance are speaking with immediacy and crafting your content for the ear rather than for the eye. For example, you must keep your speech light on numbers and facts, and cover only as many points as necessary. Del Gandio also provides some words-to-minutes conversion guidelines (one spoken minute equals a short paragraph; 10 spoken minutes, a three-page, single-spaced document) and many detailed pointers on delivery.

The book’s next section focuses on writing. Del Gandio excellently spells out the steps involved in the writing process, and affirms the conventional wisdom among writers that reading widely and prodigiously is one of the best ways to improve one’s writing. He also suggests carrying around a pen and scratch pad for those moments when inspiration unexpectedly strikes. And he takes readers step-by-step through the processes of creating a “rhetorical package”—an organizing device that forces you to think about your message, audience and goals—crafting a narrative story and fashioning an argument out of claims and evidence.

Given how pervasive propaganda is today, it’s appropriate that Del Gandio’s next chapter focuses on the manipulative power of language and how to see propaganda for what it is. Central to appreciating the power of language, Del Gandio argues, is understanding that it doesn’t just describe reality, it creates reality. Our thoughts, perceptions and experiences—and even our realities—are all shaped by language.

Del Gandio defines language and then details the steps involved in using clear, understandable, politically correct and, above all, exciting language. As for how to detect propaganda, Del Gandio describes several propaganda techniques that can often serve as tip-offs, including repetition, association, card-stacking and omission of critical details. Lastly, he notes that words, just like living things, have limited life spans. Among the old words that have largely lost their effectiveness are “Communism,” “socialism” and “anarchism.” In contrast, some examples of new words that are quickly gaining ground include “freeganism,” “participatory democracy” and “global justice.”

In spite of the great power of words to change our consciousnesses and realities, Del Gandio is quick to point out that they are not the sole purveyors of rhetoric by a long shot. There’s also “body rhetoric,” whereby our bodies communicate messages and arguments or embody our ideals, without the benefit of words. Del Gandio shows how this is constantly done through deeds like using a bike rather than a car or supporting responsible companies; activities such as rallies and protests; aspects of one’s physical appearance like tattoos or hairstyles; and works of art such as street theater. He then takes readers step-by-step through the process of creating a body argument, and explores the human “vibe” as a form of embodied rhetoric.

Rhetoric for Radicals concludes on a hopeful note, with the wish that its activist readership will internalize the book’s rhetorical tools and tactics, and will be that much better equipped to become “the rhetors of the past who created the future.” And indeed, there can be but little doubt that this thorough, well-organized, accessible—and even personal—little handbook is the best instrument imaginable for fulfilling this purpose.

Frank Kaminski is an ardent peak oiler who participates regularly in Seattle Peak Oil Awareness. He can be reached at frank.kaminski AT gmail.com.