“William wants to fight you. He’s going to be waiting in the woods after school.”

I’m not sure exactly what I said or did to William to make him thirst for my blood, but how many high school fights start with legitimate grievances, anyway? When the word went round that he was itching to get up close and personal after school, I was surprised.

Not shocked, though. A bookish, weird kid with a birthmark, a short-ish temper, a big smart mouth and a contrary disinclination to defuse situations by eating humble pie, I stumbled into more than my fair share of fights in school. So I knew the drill pretty well by that point.

I could easily have taken a different route home, but the hell with that. When the last bell rang I set my jaw and headed to the path through the woods that was my usual route to the train station. My friend and his brother came with me, as usual.

Turned out the drill was a bit different this time.

Quite a lot of people had turned out for this one. Arrayed above the path on the steep, overgrown slope were about fifty boys — lending the whole thing an unpleasantly Gladiatorial atmosphere. In the middle of the path, jumping around excitedly, was William, gnashing his teeth with adrenaline and excess blood sugar. Amongst the boys near him I recognized three or four of his hauners.

Hauners is a Scottish word which refers to your pals who will help you out if you’re losing a fight. William’s hauners were the meanest, nastiest boys in school. The kind of boys who lived to gob on your blazer from behind. Flat-eyed, sawtoothed foundies who threw spitballs at teachers and cursed them to their faces. Lads whose big brothers were doing time for assault.

I figured out in about a second how this was going to go down. I’d get maybe one flailing swing before I was in the dirt getting pounded into the environment by several pairs of Clarks boots. Best case scenario, no one would stab me.

If this sounds melodramatic to you, you’re probably not from the West of Scotland. You might have some notion that boys fighting in school is a fair way to settle grievances which follows Marquess of Queensberry rules. It’s not. Winners and losers are decided long before the actual event.

My pals, savvy statisticians that they were, had evaporated into the ether like farts in a wind tunnel. I did the only thing I could and shuffled slowly along the path past him as he danced around me shoving me around, shouting foul words in my face. His breath wasn’t great, and his spittle flecked my face. The mandatory shrill chant of “Fight! Fight!” echoed from the peanut gallery above.

Several eternities later he was behind me, along with about fifty very disappointed boys hissing and rustling their metaphorical popcorn. I walked to the train station.

I thought about the incident periodically after that. It profoundly galled me that I’d had to swallow my pride and settle for discretion, (which might be the better part of valor but tastes a lot like crow on the way down.) I seethed over the unfairness of it — the jeers, the rigged set-up — until one day years later I saw William on a train. Wearing a tie, probably going to some crappy job in a bank. He didn’t look happy at all, and I had a flash of perspective, one of those irregular, empathetic glimpses into the world of another person that make you re-evaluate how you see them. After that, it stopped bothering me, but it’ll always be one of those experiences that make me who I am today.

I’ve been thinking about the above anecdote a lot over the past few days, and I’ve finally worked out why.

Recently, the Internet Outrage Machine has been working overtime. Plastered over most of the American internet were the The Duck Dynasty guy and Justine Sacco. On a smaller scale, things reached a head in the Horrible Case of the Angry Mac [Illegimate Children]. It’s impossible to avoid these regularly scheduled joint displays of public anger and righteousness if you want to use the Internet for more than finding recipes.

A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.

Except that’s not really a winning move, either. It might be the one that preserves your sanity for the longest, but, you know, “no man is an island.” So many of these causes are valid. Awful injustices that have to be addressed one way or the other. Apathy is far from noble. Even if you try you can’t escape them, they drag you into their inexorable gravity well.

I’ve worked out that I couldn’t stop thinking about that almost-fight in the woods because my unconscious mind had drawn a parallel with current events that it took me a while to understand. Each time the outrage machine rumbles to life I hear a much more subtle version of that old childhood cry: “Fight! Fight!”

Just like the schoolboy vultures that attended my minor humiliation, I don’t think we’re always in these fights to see justice done or to uphold the rights of the weak. More often than not I think we’re there for one thing: the delicious thrill of witnessing a good old-fashioned stomping. Motive is a secondary consideration.

Worse still, sometimes we’re there as hauners, looking to get a couple of sly boots in, maybe feel someones nose pop out of joint under our size 10s. It’s a sick, wrong impulse, but it’s easy to convince ourselves that we’re there to fight the good fight.

I’m not saying that all outrage is unwarranted. There are many genuine, honest, righteous reasons to sound the alarm or speak up. But let’s try hard to make sure that when we leap into something it’s not for the bloodsport. Let’s think first: is this really something that needs my indignation? Or is it just another sly sandbagging in the woods?