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Violence is a form of antisocial behavior and is the exertion of physical force so as to injure or abuse. The word describes forceful human destruction of property or injury to persons, usually intentional, and forceful verbal and emotional abuse that harms others.[1]

Societies regulate the use of violence through socio-cultural customs and mores and through codified legal systems defining violent crime. Most societies recognize a right to violent defense of self and others.

Areas studied by psychologists include:

Psychology and Sociology

See also: Aggression

The causes of violent behavior in humans are often research topics in psychology and sociology. Neurobiologist Jan Volavka emphasizes that for those purposes, “violent behavior is defined as overt and intentional physically aggressive behavior against another person."[2]

Scientists disagree on whether violence is inherent in humans. Among prehistoric humans, there is archaeological evidence for both contentions of violence and peacefulness as primary characteristics.[3]

Riane Eisler, who describes early matriarchal societies, and Walter Wink, who coined the phrase “the myth of redemptive violence,” suggest that human violence, especially as organized in groups, is a phenomenon of the last five to ten thousand years.

The “violent male ape” image is often brought up in discussions of human violence. Dale Peterson and Richard Wrangham in “Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence” write that violence is inherent in humans.[4] However, William L. Ury, editor of a book called "Must We Fight? From the Battlefield to the Schoolyard--A New Perspective on Violent Conflict and Its Prevention” debunks the "killer ape" myth in his book which brings together discussions from two Harvard Law School symposiums. The conclusion is that “we also have lots of natural mechanisms for cooperation, to keep conflict in check, to channel aggression, and to overcome conflict. These are just as natural to us as the aggressive tendencies."[5]

James Gilligan writes violence is often pursued as an antidote to shame or humiliation.[6] The use of violence often is a source of pride and a defense of honor, especially among males who often believe violence defines manhood.[7]

Stephen Pinker in a New Republic article “The History of Violence” offers evidence that on the average the amount and cruelty of violence to humans and animals has decreased over the last few centuries.[8]


One of the main functions of law is to regulate violence. The sociologist Max Weber stated that state power is the Monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force on a specific territory.

Governments regulate the use of violence through legal systems governing individuals and political authorities, including the police and military. Most societies condone some amount of police violence to maintain the status quo and enforce laws.

However, German political theorist Hannah Arendt noted: "Violence can be justifiable, but it never will be legitimate ... Its justification loses in plausibility the farther its intended end recedes into the future. No one questions the use of violence in self-defence, because the danger is not only clear but also present, and the end justifying the means is immediate".[9] Many governments do abuse their monopoly on power to engage in violence against citizens. In the twentieth century in acts of democide governments may have killed more than 260 million of their own people through police brutality, execution, massacre, slave labor camps, and through sometimes intentional famine.[10]

Damage to property is usually considered a less serious offense unless the damage injures, or potentially could injure, others. Unpremeditated or small-scale acts of random violence or coordinated violence by unsanctioned private groups usually are prosecuted. While most societies condone the killing of animals for food and sport, increasingly they have adopted mores and laws against animal cruelty.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation classifies violence resulting in homicide, into criminal homicide and justifiable homicide (e.g. self defense).[11]

Below are some forms of violence outlawed by governmental legal entities:

  • Abuse - to use wrongly or improperly used; misuse
  • Aggravated assault - assault with the use of weapons or in other circumstances beyond the realm of normal assault
  • Assault - an unlawful physical attack upon another or threat to do violence to another
  • Assault and battery - an assault involving actual bodily contact
  • Battery - an unlawful attack upon another person by beating or wounding, or by touching in an offensive manner
  • Cruelty to animals - a cruel act upon an animal
  • Child Abuse - cruelty to children (people under the age of 18)
  • Domestic violence - acts of violence against a person living in one's household or a member of one's immediate family
  • Homicide - the killing of another human being
  • Murder - homicide in certain proscribed conditions
  • Property damage - damage to another's property (ie: breaking of things, burning, or harming in a devastating manner)
  • Rape- the unlawful compelling of someone through physical force or duress to have sexual intercourse


War is a state of prolonged violent, large-scale conflict involving two or more groups of people, usually under the auspices of government. War is fought as a means of resolving territorial and other conflicts, as war of aggression to conquer territory or loot resources, in national self-defense, or to suppress attempts of part of the nation to secede from it.

Since the Industrial Revolution, the lethality of modern warfare has steadily grown. World War I casualties were over 40 million and World War II casualties were over 70 million. The use of nuclear weapons in nuclear warfare could lead to a World War III nuclear holocaust that could result in billions of casualties.

Nevertheless, some hold the actual deaths from war have decreased compared to past centuries. Lawrence H. Keeley, a professor at the University of Illinois, calculates that 87 per cent of tribal societies were at war more than once per year, and some 65 per cent of them were fighting continuously. The attrition rate of numerous close-quarter clashes, which characterize endemic warfare, produces casualty rates of up to 60%, compared to 1% of the combatants as is typical in modern warfare.[12] Stephen Pinker agrees, writing that “in tribal violence, the clashes are more frequent, the percentage of men in the population who fight is greater, and the rates of death per battle are higher.”[13]

Jared Diamond in his award-winning novels, Guns, Germs and Steel and The Third Chimpanzee provides sociological and anthropological evidence for the rise of large scale warfare as a result of advances in technology and city-states. The rise of agriculture provided a significant increase in the number of individuals that a region could sustain over hunter-gatherer societies, allowing for development of specialized classes such as soldiers, or weapons manufacturers. On the other hand, tribal conflicts in hunter-gatherer societies tend to result in wholesale slaughter of the opposition (other than perhaps females of child-bearing years) instead of territorial conquest or slavery, presumably as hunter-gatherer numbers could not sustain empire-building.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Religious and Political Ideology

Religious and political ideologies have been the cause of interpersonal violence, and violent riots, political repression, ethnic cleansing and genocide through out history.[14] Ideologues often falsely accuse others of violence, such as the ancient blood libel against Jews, the medieval accusations of casting witchcraft spells against women, caricatures of black men as “violent brutes” that helped excuse the late nineteenth century Jim Crow laws in the United States,[15] and modern accusations of satanic ritual abuse against day care center owners and others.[16]

Both supporters and opponents of the twenty-first century war on terrorism regard it largely as an ideological and religious war.[17]

Vittorio Bufacchi describes two different modern concepts of violence, one the “minimalist conception” of violence as an intentional act of excessive or destructive force, the other the “comprehensive conception” which includes violations of rights, including a long list of human needs.[18] These concepts are reflected in conflicts between “left winganti-capitalists and “right wing’” pro-capitalists.

Anti-capitalists assert that “capitalism is violent.” They believe private property, trade, interest and profit survive only because police violence defends them and that capitalist economies need war to expand.[19] Many contest calling any form of property damage “violent.”[20] Similarly, many anti-capitalists lambast what they call “structural violence” which denotes a form of violence in which social institutions kill people slowly by preventing them from meeting their basic needs, often leading further to social conflict and violence.

Supporters of capitalism are wary of a wide definition of violence that requires the state and its violent enforcement agencies to fulfill all needs denied by structural violence. However, unlike those critics who support state capitalism[21], free market supporters argue that it is violently enforced state laws intervening in markets which cause many of the problems anti-capitalists attribute to structural violence.[22]

Throughout history, some religions like Jainism, Buddhism, Quakerism and individuals like Mahatma Gandhi have preached that humans are capable of eliminating individual violence and organizing societies through purely nonviolent means. Gandhi himself once wrote: “A society organized and run on the basis of complete non-violence would be the purest anarchy.”[23] Modern political ideologies which espouse similar views include pacifist varieties of voluntarism, mutualism, anarchism and libertarianism.

Health and prevention

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines violence as "Injury inflicted by deliberate means", which includes assault, as well as "legal intervention, and self-harm".[24] The World Health Organization ( “WHO”) in its first World Report on Violence and Health defined violence as "the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation."[25]

WHO estimates that each year around 1.6 million lives are lost world-wide due to violence. It is among the leading causes of death for people ages 15-44, especially of males.[26]

Recent estimates for murders per year in various countries include: 55,000 murders in Brazil[27], 30,000 murders in Russia, 25,000 murders in Colombia,[28], 20,000 murders in South Africa, 15,000 murders in Mexico, 14,000 murders in the United States,[29], 11,000 murders in Venezuela, 6,000 murders in El Salvador, 1,600 murders in Jamaica[30], 1000 murders in France, 500 murders in Canada, and 200 murders in Chile.[31]

Violence in the media

Main article: Media violence research

The topic of violence in popular media is controversial. This includes violence in films, television, music, comic books, and video games and televised sports. Violence in the media has led to government censorship and regulation. In the United States the FCC regulates television and radio, as does the CRTC in Canada. Media also self-regulate, as through many movie rating systems and the Entertainment Software Rating Board for video games.[32]

Violent content has been a central part of video game controversy. Critics like Dave Grossman and Jack Thompson argue that violence in games (some of which they both call "murder simulators") hardens children to unethical acts.[33]

See also


  1. Merriam-Webster and American Heritage Dictionary
  2. The Neurobiology of Violence, An Update, Journal of Neuropsychiatry Clin Neurosci 11:3, Summer 1999.
  3. Heather Whipps, Peace or War? How early humans behaved, LiveScience.Com, March 16, 2006.
  4. Peterson, Dale; Richard Wrangham (1997). Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence, Mariner Books. ISBN 0-395-87743-1 .
  5. Cindy Fazzi, Debunking the "killer ape" myth, Dispute Resolution Journal, May-Jul 2002.
  6. Gilligan, James (1996). Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic and Its Causes, Putnam Adult. ISBN 0-399-13979-6 .
  7. Emotional Competency; Dr. Michael Obsatz,From Shame-Based Masculinity to Holistic Manhood, Robin Morgan, The Demon Lover On the Sexuality of Terrorism, W.W. Norton, 1989, Chapter 5.
  8. Stephen Pinker, The History of Violence, The New Republic, March 19, 2007.
  9. Arendt, Hannah. On Violence, Harvest Book..
  10. Twentieth Century Democide; [ Atlas - Wars and Democide of the Twentieth Century.
  11. Uniform Crime Reporting Handbook. Federal Bureau of Investigation..
  12. Review of book “War Before Civilization” by Lawrence H. Keeley], July, 2004.
  13. Stephen Pinker.
  14. "Doctrinal War: Religion and Ideology in International Conflict," in Bruce Kuklick (advisory ed.), The Monist: The Foundations of International Order, Vol. 89, No. 2 (April 2006), p. 46.
  15. The Brute Caricature, Ferris State University Museum of Racist Memorabilia.
  16. 42 M.V.M.O. Court Cases with Allegations of Multiple Sexual And Physical Abuse of Children.
  17. John Edwards' 'Bumper Sticker' Complaint Not So Off the Mark, New Memo Shows; Richard Clarke, Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror, Free Press; 2004; Michael Scheuer, Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror, Potomac Books Inc., June, 2004; Robert Fisk, The Great War for Civilisation - The Conquest of the Middle East, Fourth Estate, London, October 2005; Leon Hadar, The Green Peril: Creating the Islamic Fundamentalist Threat, August 27, 1992; Michelle Malkin, Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week kicks off, October 22, 2007; John L. Esposito, Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam, Oxford University Press, USA, September 2003.
  18. Vittoriio Bufacchi, Two Concepts of Violence, Political Studies Review, April 2005, Volume 3, Issue 2, Page 193-204.
  19. Michael Albert Life After Capitalism - And Now Too., December 10, 2004; Capitalism explained .
  20. L.A. Kaufman, Who were those masked anarchists in Seattle?, December 10, 1999; Eco-Warrior Celebrates Another Year Behind Society's Bars of Ignorance; Liz Highleyman, The Global Justice Movement.
  21. Bruce Bawer, The Peace Racket, September 7, 2007.
  22. Hans-Hermann Hoppe, From the Economics of Laissez Faire to The Ethics of Libertarianism.
  23. Bharatan Kumarappa, Editor, "For Pacifists," by M.K. Gandhi, Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, India, 1949.
  24. CDC Definition of Violence.
  25. World Report on Violence and Health, October 3, 2002..
  26. WHO: 1.6 million die in violence annually.
  27. Brazil murder rate similar to war zone, data shows.
  28. Colombia's Uribe wins second term.
  29. Twentieth Century Atlas - Homicide.
  30. Jamaica 'murder capital of the world'.
  31. Crime Statistics.
  32. Sheet 15 - Children and Violence in the Media.
  33. Violence in Media Entertainment; Childhood Exposure to Media Violence Predicts Young Adult Aggressive Behavior, According to a New 15-year Study, American Psychological Association press release, March 9, 2003.


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