Quote of the week

A person of good intelligence and of sensitivity cannot exist in this society very long without having some anger about the inequality – and it’s not just a bleeding-heart, knee-jerk, liberal kind of a thing – it is just a normal human reaction to a nonsensical set of values where we have cinnamon flavoured dental floss and there are people sleeping in the street.

– George Carlin (unreliable source)

I find this quote interesting because I’m intensely ambivalent about it.

On the one hand, compassion, or at least empathy, is good. I agree with Carlin there. Anyone of true Christian faith, or most faiths, is compelled to treat the poor well and it’s clear in most scriptures that helping those in need is one of the greatest, and holiest, things a person can do.

But the fact that we make cinnamon flavored dental floss (or not) has no relationship to whether there are poor people in the world, or how we go about handling poor people in our communities.  There’s something naive in assuming one is causing or has any effect on the other.

Carlin himself was fond of explain how unfair and illogical the universe as a whole is, but here he’s equating a surplus in one area with being related to, or causing, a lack in another, which applies a kind of logic that isn’t necessarily inherent in the universe.

If anything, dental floss is cheap. Cinnamon flavoring is cheap. The $50 people spent to see Carlin perform is more of an extravagance than the fanciest dental floss.  People worried about scratches in their $80,000 car, or getting stressed out about their summer vacation plans, as people around them can’t get their basic needs met is a better comparison of inequality that’s hard at times to comprehend.

22 Responses to “Quote of the week”

  1. Daeng Bo

    Thank you for this. Hollywood stars who live in mansions and spend their lives in the company of only the trendy and wealthy yet who lecture about others about compassion or taking care of the needy are practicing the height of hypocrisy. I can barely stand to listen to such tripe.

    I liked Carlin. He was generally insightful about such matters, but his politics got in the way of that characteristic sometimes.

  2. Chris Granger

    I’m not sure I agree. Unlike going to see his performance, there it little to no value in cinnamon flavored dental floss. It is no more functional than any other dental floss and it has, at best, a marginal increase to the experience of flossing your teeth. Moreover, while dental floss is cheap, the inception of this single concept assuredly wasn’t. Considering all of the things that went into the production of this “flavor” – time to formulate the correct “taste,” focus groups and trials, branding work, new logistics for getting the cinnamon flavor’s ingredients, etc etc – a whole lot of effort went into something completely useless. I’m not so sure his argument is actually about extravagance, but instead about absolute waste.

    I suspect that the “cost” of conception to manufacturing of the cinnamon flavor would measure well into the millions, and who knows how much time was wasted. Imagine, instead, that those resources (including the thought capital!) were applied to problems that legitimately served to make society better.

    You extrapolate his premise to a $50 ticket for his show, but it’s nearly impossible to quantify the value of art. You are also a creator yourself, do you not think that what you do has value? Does it enrich the world? Are you better than cinnamon dental floss? (I think so.) To me, the argument you bring up is actually about the balance of living for yourself and living for others, which is not what Carlin was explicitly talking about. The question of this balance is a much deeper problem and significantly more difficult to tackle. However, ridding the world of things that are nearly completely devoid of value and applying that capital to something useful is quite a bit simpler.

  3. Sean Crawford

    I agree Scott, there’s no connection.

    As I pondered, I recalled the sf time travel trilogy (Axis of Time) by John Birmingham where naval men of WWII are horrified at naval men of the future. The former fight with anger, be it with fists, bayonets or cannons against the dirty fascists. They see the strangers, under fluorescent lights at glowing consoles, (in a very complicated “battle area”) fight with intention, absorbed and lacking any emotion, even elation, let alone anger.

    I realized then that anger is an evolutionary tool, useful for energy in appropriate situations, (fists) not appropriate (martial arts) as I am eating cinnamon flavoured hearts on Valentine’s day.

    With no connection I need no anger.

    If some day I worked full time with the homeless then I would, like the future navy, be energized by professionalism, and compassion too, but not anger, not even the quiet cold kind- it is just not a sustainable power source.

    And I would sure treasure my sense of humour.

  4. Simon

    Cinnamon flavoured dental floss is sufficiently weird enough to be funny and still make a point about inequality — a point that most people will pick up on easily, even if the connection is slightly wobbly (though not as wobbly as you suggest).

    This dental floss is a reflection of our apathy towards others (especially others far away). We could have toothpaste that supports dental hygiene initiatives in developing nations, but we don’t. It’s existence is an effect of the fact that we simply don’t care.

    I believe that’s where the relationship lives. The cost of the product doesn’t matter, nor does the amount that we have, it’s the fact that it even exists — that we have chosen this more than an alternative that does focus on equality.

    Those alternatives don’t exist because we don’t want them to exist. Instead, we want tingly tongues when we floss.

    Cars and vacations are too close to home to have as much power. If he’d used that, instead of nodding along and saying “so true!”, many people would be stopping and saying “yeah, but…”.

    Those things matter to people. Novelty dental products, not so much.

    My MacBook Pro is like Cinnamon flavoured dental floss — works just like regular, cheaper dental floss but is superficially tastier.

    But people probably got sick or hurt making my computer. They definitely didn’t get paid enough. It’s something I have to deal with as a privileged Westerner not willing to walk around like Jesus or Gandhi.

  5. Scott Berkun

    Daeng: my biggest complaint about Carlin is how nihilistic he became late in his life. He was more mean than funny, whereas the core of his career the balance was the other way.

  6. PaulM

    Great entry Scott. I agree wholeheartedly.
    While I laughed along with many others at Carlin’s observations, he misses the point in the quote above.
    The fact that you might encounter a homeless man sleeping in the street, and cinnamon dental floss on the same block has nothing whatsoever to do with our societal values.

    You nailed this one.

    Carlin seems to want to fault some invisible “grand design” and value set with allowing these two things to co-exist. ( Homelessness and Cinnamon Dental Floss.)

    There is no doubt they represent stark – and certainly sad – contrasts. But I think anyone would have a hard time defending Carlin’s logic…

    Nobody has a value set which says: “Let’s ignore homeless people so that we can have cinnamon dental floss instead!”

  7. Jack Dempsey

    Been thinking about just this sort of thing ever since moving to San Francisco.

    You can see huge billboards advertising Farmville while people are eating out of the trash can below.

    I still haven’t quite wrapped my head around it.

  8. Arun K

    I think you missed the point.

    He is not comparing the “cinnamon flavoured dental floss” and the homeless people.

    He is bewildered that people are investing time to innovate products that offer little social benefit than to invest time in innovating to provide low-cost housing solutions for the homeless, which provides greater social benefit. He is not angry that the “cinnamon flavoured dental floss” exists. He would not be angry if a “vanilla flavoured dental floss” is introduced in future if one already does not exist. He is angry that there is no solution yet for the homeless people given how long the problem has been around and I am pretty sure he will accept it in whatever flavour it comes.

  9. Scott Berkun


    I understand what you’re saying, but this assumes that the 500 hours it took to make cinnamon flavored dental floss could be applied as 500 hours to helping homeless people, and my point is that it doesn’t necessarily transfer.

    For some problems, like poverty, it is possible there is no solution, and our failures are not a result of lack of effort but of something fundamental about distribution of wealth (I’m not sure I believe this, but it is a reasonable theory some people do believe in).

    Making the floss makers do something else (“Ban floss until there are no homeless people!”) might have zero impact on the problem of homelessness. Perhaps the profits generated by selling fancy floss can be donated to those who can help the homeless, and is a more effective way to help than having floss makers do tasks they suck at.

  10. Mike Nitabach

    Carlin’s point is to juxtapose that people devoted substantial time, effort, and creativity to develop something as absurdly trivial as cinnamon-flavored dental floss, while ignoring something as morally and pragmatically salient as homelessness. He chose cinnamon-flavored dental floss–and not Bentleys or private jets–precisely because it is so insignificant.

  11. Ario

    I was one of the people who got a surge of dopamine after first reading this quote as it resonates highly with my experience having worked in a few large companies.

    Here’s what I took from the quote…

    Many of us are working on things that may move the monetary dial, but don’t really move humanity advancement dial. A lot of the former is justified by saying that it supports initiatives in the latter that wouldn’t exist otherwise. (A canonical example being online ad sales supporting bigger efforts like bringing the internet to Africa).

    It seems unethical to work in an organization where the latter is non-existent… an example that comes to mind is someone who works on a MMORPG. Sure, an employee there could say “hey, I work on something that gives a lot of people pleasure and perhaps stress relief… if they didn’t have this game, they’d just watch TV or do something else… might as well let them do what they like.” I think this is irresponsible though in the same way that bad fast food places are irresponsible. I love video games as much as the next guy, but the uniquely addictive and unhealthy lifestyle that MMORPGs encourage make them unique in my mind.

    If you’re in an organization that does do work in that latter category and you work directly on the former, then you always have to keep in mind that justification.

    There are those rare projects that manage to do both (add real value to people’s lives and manage to financially support those who create that value) and I think we should all strive to find a way to get ourselves onto projects of this nature.

  12. Daniel Howard

    Well, GC isn’t claiming that there is a causal connection between cinnamon-flavored dental floss and homeless people. But he does raise a valid point that maybe we’d be better off trying to resolve the homeless problem before applying our talents to the question of creating cinnamon-flavored dental floss.

    We should resolve the absurd problem of people sleeping in the streets before we solve the absurd problem of how to floss our teeth with a cinnamon flavor. Just sayin’.


  13. Dick

    Scott, et al,

    Seems to me one on the several logical flaws here — and it’s a very common one — is setting up a false A or B choice. Hogwash–there’s no reason both, A+B, can’t exist. But I agree with you Scott, I find the not-so-righteous wealthy celebrity unconvincing in this stuff. Just how many millions has this person used to fix ?

  14. Jen zug

    I can see his point – I feel the same way about toothpaste. Really, America? Do we really need an entire aisle of choices between COOL mint and FRESH mint?

  15. George

    Carlin is making a remark about our set of values here. We provide a market for flavored dental floss and no market for some way for homeless people to not be homeless.

  16. Darryl

    While the cinnamon flavoured dental floss sounds utterly ridiculous in this context, it’s an entirely subjective argument in terms of what’s serving a valuable purpose in life and what could be considered completely trivial and unnecessary.

    What Carlin’s quote says to me is that we live in a world of incredible disparity between wealth and poverty.

    Yes, we have the technological means to engage in discussion on Scott’s blog because we are able to afford Internet access and expensive computer devices —and we are not starving.

    Yet someone living in a third world country in poverty would likely trade all these seemingly trivial technological luxuries for access to a nourishing plate of food or a clean, drinkable glass of water.

    Consider for a moment how many things we all tend to take for granted in our daily lives.

  17. martin

    You missed the joke.

    Carlin made a caricatural picture to make us laugh and think, I got it, why didn’t you?

  18. Flo Ledermann

    But the quote is not at all suggesting any causality – the opposite is true. It is an expression of the feeling of disconnectedness, about the possible banality of “wealth” and the very material reality of poverty, existing at the same time, and exactly *without* connection to one another. It is the disconnectedness that causes “anger”, which is not a rational thought trying to intervene in the world, but an emotion coming out of being confronted with the breathtakingly absurd.

    If you look for the cause in the dental floss, you are lost. Look within yourself.

  19. Gab

    The dental floss, I think was used for comic effect, but the underlying truth is that it is indeed EASY to see how greed and consumerism have are in a direct cause-effect relationship with poverty and misery.

    Take one of my favorite examples. A spoiled rich woman buying a 2900$ designer’s handbag:
    She does not need a handbag.
    She has plenty of handbags, nice ones, already.
    Even if she did need a handbag, a 20 dollar one could have worked just as fine.
    She buys this particular one because she is spoiled/bored/shallow/vane/dumb/add freely here

    Therefore she could without doubt use 2880 dollars to help someone who has not been as lucky as her in the unfair lottery of life.
    Because of huge majorities of those who draw the lucky tickets behaving like this, the lottery never gets more fair. And this is a BIG causal effect.

    Unfairness could be mitigated over time if people weren’t like that. As I am sure you know some enlightened billionaires have taken dramatically courageous and admirable steps in this sense lately…. and Gates or Buffet MUST have thought a lot about it and concluded that for their life’s meaning sake, handbags wouldn’t do.



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