Rowan Williams in the New Statesman:
It would help if we had a single, clear story we could believe about violence – it’s getting worse because of this or that factor in our world, so we know whom to blame; it’s getting better as we all become more educated and secular, so we don’t have to worry in the long term. But the evidence is profoundly confusing.
Richard Bessel begins his lucid and well-documented book with a round-up of contemporary views, from those who think first of the astronomical statistics of humanly devised injury and death in the 20th century to those (like Steven Pinker in a much-discussed recent book) for whom what matters is the gradual change in sensibility that has made us simply more sensitive to the suffering of others – as well as the relative absence of major international conflict in the past half-century or so. As Bessel observes, Pinker’s statistics will seem a little academic if you happen to live in South Sudan or Syria (or Baltimore or Johannesburg).
The paradox of our era in the modern North Atlantic world is that while we are probably objectively more secure against the casual daily risk of violence than our ancestors, we are more anxious and more outraged by the prospect as well as the reality of violence, and more prone to extend its meaning to forms of offensive or menacing speech and action that would not have registered for those ancestors. We are, in a word, more preoccupied with violence; hence the subtitle, A Modern Obsession.