In its more limited sense, violence is an overt act of destruction, the exertion of physical force which is meant to affect another, or a type of behaviour that is designed to inflict personal injury to people or damage to property. When sanctioned by custom or tradition through the institutions of society it becomes institutionalized, especially in the most dramatic form as war.
Human acts of violence may be defensive as well as offensive. When offensive they may be premeditated or not, and if not premeditated they may be provoked or unprovoked as in the case of so called senseless violence. Acts of violence may be perpetrated by individuals of any sex or age, or by groups in concerted and pre-planned acts, or spontaneously as in mob-violence. A major non-physical form is structural violence.
In a broader sense, as denoted by the Jain term himsa, violence also includes other harmful acts which do not involve physical assault. These may encompass violent thought, hurtful speech, deceit, greed, and pride or any forms of violation of personhood when applied to humans. The concept can also apply in relation to other life forms. In these broader senses, any act, whether intentional or unintentional, which depersonalizes can be an act of himsa through its transformation of the person into a mere object or be used or manipulated. Hoarding resources may not be an act of violence in its narrow sense but as an act of himsa it is a form of violence in the broader sense. The Jains distinguish 432 types of himsa, some of which do not involve negative intent.
Society has never experienced a period without violence. In all previous periods it appears to have been accepted as part of the natural order. With the industrial and political revolutions, and the emancipation of the individual, perceptions changed and violence was "denaturalized" and became unacceptable. A vision of a civilized society without violence emerged. But this shift required a distinction between unacceptable and "legitimate" violence understood as a response to unlawful rule and domination. It is this legitimate violence which has become characteristic of modern life. This ubiquitous form of aggression which is experienced at home, at work or at school has been called structural violence.
Society is most concerned about criminal violence to which it characteristically addresses more penal efforts than to anything else. To a lesser extent there is attention at national levels to juvenile violence, but here the efforts are usually seriously remedial. Civil violence statistics vary according to the presence of political confrontations, labour disputes, governmental repression of individual rights, unemployment and racial tensions.
Societies may condition their population to accept violence as a legitimate solution to problems, and governments may manipulate groups of people to act violently. Violence has the characteristics of disease and the world suffers both from it and its proposed cure, the violent defence of peace by ideologies, who are prepared to annihilate each other.
If the idea of violence is framed as an aberration, a deviation from the path of normality, there is the risk of unwittingly justifying the neglect of whole segments of society while ignoring the increasing power of violence generated by society itself to isolate and brutalize the individual. As long as history is conceived as the evolution of civilization from barbaric violence to rationality and peace, open and brutal violence is perceived as part of the old order. But the dividing line is an illusion: violence is as much a part of each person as it is of society. A skeptical view of the possibility of eradicating war and violence is necessary. Accepting the world will be free from violence is not the same as accepting violence. Paradoxically, letting go of the idea of eternal peace may increase the ability to make peace.