JUST over a century ago, the Russian novelist Alexandre Kuprin penned a searing account of prostitution in his homeland. Remarkable for its time, Yama: The Pit, unflinchingly detailed the evils inflicted on those in the industry, and condemned the public's complacency about the issue. ''The horror,'' he wrote, ''is … that there is no horror.''

Kuprin's condemnation of an apathetic society came back to me when I read an account of Monday night's New Year's celebrations.

''Victoria Police has praised the behaviour of New Year's Eve revellers,'' The Age reported, adding: ''Officers made 182 arrests for assaults.''

Another 240 people had been arrested for drunkenness, the paper went on to say, and ''in seaside Lorne, an 18-year-old was stabbed in the chest during a fight just before midnight''. He was in a serious but stable condition.

All this was recorded on page four in an eight-paragraph story right under the report of our ''all-time low'' annual road toll of 279 deaths - hey, well done, folks! - and adjacent to another report on the arrest of 84 concert-goers for carrying illegal substances into the Summadayze music festival at the Myer Music Bowl. (Carols by Candlelight a week earlier at the same venue suddenly seemed an awfully long time ago.)

The police were even more upbeat about New Year's Eve on their own website, headlining a report of the hundreds of arrests for drunkenness and assault in this way: ''Good behaviour the theme of the night for NYE.''

Good behaviour - really? Who interprets these figures, Tony Soprano? If that's a good night, I'd hate to see a bad one. As Kuprin might have asked: ''Where's the horror?'' Any night involving 182 assaults, including a stabbing that puts someone in hospital and close to death, has to be defined as anarchic. And they are just the ones reported to police. Who knows how many other assaults occurred that did not go further than the pub car park or the family home. I hate to think.

Of course, police were comparing the figures with those of previous years, which were higher. But it should not be about comparisons - 182 assaults is far too many, and so is 240 arrests for drunkenness. In any year. Come to think of it, 279 road deaths is unacceptable, too, and police acknowledged that in their public statements. Why the different tack on assaults?

There was some horror, though. The public was clearly outraged by the tragic death of David Cassai, the 22-year-old Templestowe landscaper who died after allegedly being king hit outside a Rye pizza parlour about 1am on Monday. Several arrests have been made, including that of an 18-year-old charged with manslaughter.

Putting aside that particular incident, in a general sense one-punch deaths have become all too common, prompting senior police to theorise that there is a disconnect between violence depicted on screen and the reality that too often confronts them.

On television or in movies and video games, victims of attacks merely pick themselves up, brush themselves off and get back into the fray. That does not happen in real life, where one punch can kill.

Perhaps it's time for a public education campaign along those lines. The ''One Punch Can Kill'' campaign could screen during those Ultimate Fighter programs Foxtel loves to air and spruik with the promise: ''Someone's going to get hurt.'' Thousands of young men eat this stuff up. Is it any surprise they are over-represented in violent assaults both as perpetrators and victims?

If we could have the same success with an anti-violence campaign as we've had with our .05 policing - ''only'' 55 drink-driving offences were recorded New Year's Eve - we might begin to make inroads into our violent sub-culture.

Certainly, there would be fewer instances of gross violence if we were a little less accepting of minor assaults. Should not we be rising up in anger over almost 200 attacks in one night? Instead we applaud the community for its ''good behaviour''. There's another disconnect. Two weeks before Christmas, Victoria's Attorney-General, Robert Clark, introduced legislation that provides for a statutory minimum sentence of four years' jail for attacks involving gross violence.

''For too long, the law has not done enough to protect innocent Victorians from being victims of horrific, unprovoked attacks that leave terrible lifelong injuries,'' he said in his second reading speech.

The Crimes Amendment (Gross Violence Offences) Bill fulfils an election commitment and recognises not only the epidemic of violence confronting us, but also that some judges simply don't get it.

This takes some elements of the sentencing decision out of their hands and should ensure that mindless thugs get their just desserts. It's a step in the right direction.

In the meantime, we should not sugarcoat one of the biggest cultural problems we face by applauding good behaviour that is clearly bad, and accepting levels of assault that are inimical to a decent, law-abiding society. To do so only invites more violence, and that's too horrible to contemplate.

Bruce Guthrie is a former editor of The Age and The Sunday Age.