Rhetoric for Radicals: A Handbook for Twenty-First Century Activists

By Jason Del Gandio
New Society Publishers, November 30, 2007, $17.95

If you have ever lived in a big city, then you have most likely experienced being bombarded with leaflets by a passionate activist while walking down the street. How many times have you dismissed these activists as extremists or radicals with slogans? There is no denying that our world is in need of change, however the passion of an activist may not easily translate to the masses, making it potentially impossible to affect change. In their rush to sway the world to their cause, a person’s passion may eclipse the clarity and intelligence required in communicating the importance of a cause.

Rhetoric for Radicals: A Handbook for Twenty-First Century Activists attempts to fill this gap in activism by providing advice on strategic delivery of a coherent message. Its author, Jason Del Gandio, is an assistant professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, and brings with him a wide variety of activism experience, including work on globalization and free/fair trade issues, anti-war campaigns and Latin American solidarity. During his work as an activist, Del Gandio observed that there was a gap between the actions and rhetoric of activists, and that this gap not only existed in the field of practical activism, but in activist literature as well. From this gap the central thesis of Rhetoric for Radicals was born.

Rhetoric for Radicals is organized as a set of guidelines to aid the inexperienced radical activist. Divided into five parts, each section provides the reader with examples and suggestions, as well as tools. Del Gandio dedicates the first part of his book to establishing the need for clearer communication in activism. He does this successfully by providing examples of activists who possessed superior rhetorical abilities, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. In addition, he clearly identifies the logic underscoring his thesis: “Change the rhetoric and you change the communication. Change the communication and you change the experience. Change the experience and you change the person’s orientation to the world. Change that orientation and you create conditions for profound social change.” By making clear statements such as this, Del Gandio successfully establishes a platform upon which to build the rest of the book.

Del Gandio discusses simple public speaking and writing techniques in the first section of the book. He provides various tips which range from creating a hook for your speech, to projecting your voice to making yourself seem more confident. One of his most helpful strategies in this section involves creating a rhetorical package, which involves creating an overall image and narrowing a person’s focus by creating a packaged message. Del Gandio does this by posing questions to the reader such as who is my audience? What is my message? What is my rhetorical strategy? He forces activists to consider how other people may perceive them as well as their message. At times Del Gandio’s prose seems somewhat simplistic, however his straightforward approach accurately reflects his belief that clear communication is the key to success.

In the third and fourth sections, Del Gandio focuses on the power of language and body rhetoric in activism. He looks at the nature of language and the body, and how they constitute consciousness. He suggests that as humans, we are often unaware of how our language, both body and spoken, is seen by others surrounding us. He covers a wide range of topics, from relationships between language and the self-identities of cultural heritage, to street theatre. I believe the book would have benefited by expanding on certain topics such as his section regarding the lifespan of words. He discusses old words, and how using the same words over and over again can make your rhetoric stale. He follows this by a brief discussion of how to update your language and keep your message fresh, however I believe that he could have taken this further.

In the last section of the novel, Del Gandio discusses the need for a “21st century brand of radical rhetoric.” In this section, he provides tools for an activist to use in creating a bridge between actions and the public’s reception of those actions. He looks at the importance of targeting your audience and becoming personally responsible for the actions which you are promoting. He finishes with a discussion of neo-radicalism, and the importance of creating new practices to communicate the issue you are passionate about. Del Gandio does an excellent job in allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions, in addition to summarizing and contextualizing all of the tips he provided in previous chapters.

In Rhetoric for Radicals, Jason Del Gandio not only identifies a gap in activist theory, he also provides a thorough set of guidelines for the young activist which may be used to fill that gap. As someone who is passionate about activism, I know that I will get much use out of this book for years to come. Although the book is intended for activists, its tips involving body language, verbal language, public speaking and writing are easily transferable to a non-activist arena, making Rhetoric for Radicals a must have for activist and non-activists alike.–Katie O’Connor

Katie O’Connor is a recent graduate of Carleton University’s political science program. She is currently living in Toronto.

Katie O'Connor

Katie O'Connor

Katie O’Connor is a graduate of Carleton University’s political science program, where she specialized in international relations. She joined rabble.ca in late 2008 as a contributor to the...