Tea drinkers can be divided into two categories: those who dip biscuits (or similar items) in their tea and those who do not. Now, I am not aware of any law in any country of the world that makes cookie-dunking a cognizable offence. But then there is no such law against listening to Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Munni Begum or Aziz Mian either – at any rate none that I am aware of. That the law does not prohibit something is a very poor reason to do it.
The strongest argument in support of cookie-dunking that I am aware of is this: ‘One has the tea; one has the cookie; so why the hell not?’ A little thought will suffice to show how dangerous this line of reasoning can be. So much for arguments that support the practice!
But are there any sound arguments against cookie-dunking? Let me start by acknowledging that there are no health harms of the practice over and above those associated with consuming undipped cookies. Other risks are there though. I happen to know a man – fiancé and soon to be bridegroom of a well-known lady – who was unceremoniously shown the door and the impending wedding called off after he succumbed to the temptation of dipping cookies in his tea during a visit to the in-laws. Not that this is the reason why cookies must never be dunked in tea. The Achilles heel of utilitarian arguments is that it is not at all easy to know how to decide (and how long after the fact) whether, on balance, a certain act is beneficial or otherwise. Besides, one could argue that by the simple act of dunking a cookie in tea, the man was saved from a lifetime of untold misery. I am afraid this line of argument leads to nowhere.
Of course, the issue of cookie-dunking is only one manifestation of a broader question. Namely, how to decide if something – anything – is in good or in bad taste? Popularity, or lack thereof, is not going to be much help either. Jay Leno consistently had better ratings than David Letterman, and Honey Singh arguably has more fans than has Madan Mohan. What does that prove, except that the average public taste leaves a lot to be desired?
An intelligent man can present arguments to justify his position (or refute his opponent’s) on an issue, although it is also unfortunately true that a man devoid of intelligence is unlikely to appreciate those reasons. But discussions on good and bad taste do not even go that far; because while a man with a discriminating taste spontaneously knows that something is in bad taste, he cannot quite put his finger on the reason. How do some people manage to acquire good taste in the first place (and others do not) is largely a mystery.
How do you propose to prove to somebody that appreciating Ghalib’s poetry is a sign of good taste? Or that appreciating Wasi Shah’s (for example) not so much? There is simply no way of doing that. And yet, people of taste know that these are not even issues to be debated. The dilemma then is this: There are those with whom you have a common basis for discussion, but you do not need to prove anything to them. On the other hand, it is impossible to have any discussion with those who need to be shown the error of their ways.
As another example, consider wearing of ankle socks with formal shoes – something increasingly considered ‘cool’ at weddings and other formal occasions. Unlike the case with the practice of wearing no socks at all with closed in shoes (another emerging trend) there is not even a utilitarian objection against ankle socks. And yet, a man of sound judgment knows that while ankle socks have a legitimate role to play in sports and casual wear, they do not belong anywhere in the vicinity of the formal suit. Why? Aesthetics!
When it comes to aesthetics, there is no way one can show why something is in good or in bad taste. You will find many who agree with you on a question on aesthetics, but that is not because you make a strong case for your stance but because they already share your aesthetic sense. As for those who do not share that aesthetic, you cannot employ some rational argument to even get the discussion rolling. For no such arguments exist!
This is the reason why rational debates (hard that they no doubt are) are simpler than debates on aesthetics and taste. An intelligent man can present arguments to justify his position (or refute his opponent’s) on an issue, although it is also unfortunately true that a man devoid of intelligence is unlikely to appreciate those reasons. But discussions on good and bad taste do not even go that far; because while a man with a discriminating taste spontaneously knows that something is in bad taste, he cannot quite put his finger on the reason. How do some people manage to acquire good taste in the first place (and others do not) is largely a mystery.
In summary then, what is wrong with dunking cookies in tea? To answer the question (and many others of its ilk), I am afraid I can do no better than quote the legendary Louis Armstrong: If you have to ask, you will never know.