You know the scene. You're sitting with a few friends at midnight, after having drunk six times the amount of alcohol recommended by the Health Education Authority as a safe weekly intake, when an argument breaks out. A moment ago, Tom was looking like a candidate for the camp bed, and now suddenly he's hurling points around the room with all the demented enthusiasm of a five-year-old tackling his first dartboard.
At such moments, I'm always aware of being on what the sociologist David Matza once called the "invitational edge". I may have no interest whatsoever in the particular - do I really care whether "Strange Fruit" was Billie Holliday's finest and most memorable song or merely a sentimental and overblown lyric thrust on her by white, lefty intellectuals who wouldn't know a good jazz singer if they stumbled over one on the Kremlin steps? - but I know that, at any moment, I'll be the recipient of a pleading gaze from one of the participants which indicates that they'd welcome me on their side. I am, after all, the only academic in the room and, although that may not count for a bag of marbles in any other circumstance, it potentially makes me a useful ally when the going gets especially partisan. ("All right then, don't bother to listen to what I'm saying. Listen to the professor. Listen to the fucking professor!")
I also know that events never work out quite so simply. No matter how calm I am when I finally enter the fray, no matter how meticulously I assemble my own case, there will come a moment when I'm fatally shafted by a mere anecdote. I may have the whole room nodding in reluctant approval as I carefully argue that Billie Holliday's ability to transform such an unconsidered but popular trifle as "I'll Be Seeing You" into a mesmeric reminder of the hallucinogenic consequences of personal loss must surely count as a greater artistic achievement than her performance of a song such as "Strange Fruit", in which the emotion, however powerful, is preordained. But even as I near the climax of my case, I hear the sound of Sally or Gordon gearing up for an anecdotal rebuttal. "I had this friend once who had no interest at all in civil rights. And then, one night, she heard Billie sing "Strange Fruit", and she was so moved by the image of black men swinging from the trees that she went straight out and volunteered for VSO. She's now working in a field hospital in Mozambique."
I'm thrilled to say that I'm now in a position to prevent this anecdotal coup de grace. Last week, I was listening to a radio debate about the possible value of introducing an element of restorative justice into our legal system - allowing offender and victim to confront each other and decide upon the appropriate form of restitution. At one point, the intelligent and committed proponent of the idea thought fit to tell the story of a career criminal who had been confronted by his victim and been so moved by the effects of his crime upon her life that he had abandoned his previous lifestyle and turned to good works.
There was a pause, and then the other academic protagonist in the debate quietly said: "I think one should always try to resist the particular appeal of a singularly happy ending."
So delighted was I by the argumentative potential of this sentence that I've not only written it out in full on the back of my AUT membership card, but I'm even now practising how I should lean back on the sofa to receive my plaudits. "Just listen to the professor. Just listen to the fucking professor."