Forget all those ultra-violent computer games and action movies. We’re much less violent today than we used to be, a York academic claims in his latest book. STEPHEN LEWIS spoke to him.

WE’VE just lived through a century that is often described as the most violent in history. Modern video games and even blockbuster action movies revel in the most gruesome violence.

So it is pretty obvious that people today are more violent than ever, right?

Wrong, says Richard Bessel.

The professor of twentieth century history at the University of York accepts that we are perhaps more obsessed with violence now than we ever have been. But that’s quite different to actually being violent, he says.

If anything, we are far more sensitive towards and shocked by violence now than we have been for a long time – at least in the West.

In his new book, Violence: A Modern Obsession, he comes up with some convincing evidence to support this claim. And he sets it out with academic rigour during the course of an interview in his office at the university.

Just look at the carpet bombing of Germany towards the close of the Second World War, he says. “Arthur Harris (Bomber Harris) was open and explicit about the goal of bomber command: to kill as many civilians as possible in order to break German morale.”

Contrast that with the behaviour of the US military in the second Iraq war, he says. “If the US had wanted to do so, they could have killed everybody in Iraq within 48 hours.” But they didn’t.

The western military today not only display much more concern about the lives of their own people, Prof Bessel says. “They also show concern for the lives of the other side.” Mass killing, even in pursuit of war, is simply not acceptable these days. “Our attitudes towards violence have changed.”

You see that not only in wars, but in other aspects of modern life.

Not that long ago in Europe and the US, hangings were public spectacles. Not any more.

Our attitudes towards domestic violence have also changed. There was a time when what went on behind closed doors in the family home stayed there. Now, domestic violence is no longer seen as even remotely acceptable.

It is the same with the physical punishment of children. The cane, the slipper, even a smack, are seen as totally unacceptable today, whereas little more than a generation ago they were commonplace.

What has happened is that, in the West at least, we have all become much more sensitive to violence, Prof Bessel says. We might enjoy violent films or computer games, but we know they are not real. “We don’t want to see real violence. If we ever do, it is shocking. Deeply, deeply shocking.”

There are several reasons why we’re so much more sensitive about violence now than our forebears were a couple of generations ago, he believes.

Partly it is because western nations were so deeply traumatised by the wholesale slaughter and savagery of the first and second world wars. Partly it is because we are much wealthier and more comfortable than we were a few generations ago. “Being sensitive to violence is a luxury that we can afford.” And partly it is because modern developed states are generally strong and stable, and are able to keep a lid on violence and violent crime. As a result, comparatively few of us are ever exposed to it.

Whatever the causes, it must be a good thing that we are now so much more sensitive to violence than in the past?

Well, perhaps. Prof Bessel has been accused of being an optimist, he says. But he isn’t, not really.

Yes, we are more sensitive to violence now than we were. But that could change. “It is all reversible,” he says.

Violence: A Modern Obsession by Richard Bessel is published by Simon & Schuster, priced £16 (£11 Kindle edition).