We Didn’t Talk About Healing and Unity in the 60s. Why now?

January 22, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

Now that the inauguration has finally settled the question of who is president, the calls for “unity” and “healing” will probably taper off. But for a while, you couldn’t turn on the TV without hearing those words. I wouldn’t have been surprised if, after the debacle also known as the Steelers-Browns playoff game, Mike Tomlin had said that the Steelers needed a time for healing.

In past times of national division, healing and unity were not part of the political discourse, They have become popular only recently, sort of like Liam and Olivia. In the 1960s, nobody named their kid Liam or Olivia. The 1960s was also, you may recall, a period of political conflict and division over civil rights and the war in Vietnam. Riots in the cities, assassinations of political leaders, killings and terrorism by White supremacists who were sometimes also cops and sheriffs. And yet, there wasn’t a lot of talk about healing and unity.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

Unity actually declines in the sixties. Healing is just beginning its rise, and I suspect that much of the healing talk in those books was about personal rather than political healing. The crossover into politics does begin in the sixties, but the rise was nothing like what happened a quarter-century later.

Google nGrams, the source of the above graphs, counts words in books, so it lags behind the actual change in fashions. For something more up-to-the-minute I tried the Nexis-Uni tally of words in news publications. The graphs I could get quickly are not as nuanced, not as granular (speaking of fashionable words), but they show the same trends. The concern with healing a divided nation doesn’t set in until very late in the 20th century,

Why were we not talking about unity in the 1960s? My guess is that the difference between then and now is that although the nation was divided, it was not polarized. Certainly, the two major parties were not as polarized. The news media were also more concentrated, less divided. The most trusted man in America was a TV news anchor, something unimaginable today.

As for healing, its popularity is part of the more general diffusion of the language of psychotherapy into all areas of life, including politics. The therapy-based issues, as in “he has commitment issues,” has replaced the more secular problems. Decades ago, if I said, “Houston, we have an issue,” I would get a smile of recognition. Now, most people would think it was an accurate quote. We also talk about what someone “needs” to do rather than what they “should” do — the therapy language of personal needs replacing the morality language of right and wrong.* It’s a tribute to what might be called the triumph of the therapeutic that in a time when an actual disease has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans and infected millions, our talk of healing is all about politics.


* I’ve said this before in somewhat greater detail in earlier posts (here
 Mad Men — Language Ahead of Its Time) and here (Needs — One More Time).

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