Undergoing a dental cleaning is well-known as being a painful experience, but assuming the hygienist doesn’t mishandle her instruments and accidentally cut your lip, no one’s to blame for the pain caused by the scraping of plaque from your teeth with blunt metal tools. On the contrary, this pain serves the greater good of keeping your teeth and gums healthy. However, there’s a subtler but more profound form of suffering inflicted on these occasions--and by the dentist himself rather than by the hygienist. (All the hygienists I’ve ever seen have been women, while all the dentists have been men, but this is neither here nor there.)
Assuming your teeth are healthy, the dentist nevertheless perpetrates the scam of his “Examination and Diagnosis,” as it’s called on the bill. What happens is the following. You lie back in the dentist’s chair for about an hour while the hygienist uses various instruments to remove the plaque buildup and then to polish your teeth. So far no swindle, but just pain for the greater good. Then the dentist drops in, looks inside your mouth for about twenty seconds, absentmindedly touching your teeth a few times with one of his metal instruments, and he pronounces your teeth healthy and walks out. Those twenty seconds of his “work” cost you $30 CAD on top of the fee for the teeth cleaning. You can protest at the outset that you don’t need to see the dentist himself, since you know your teeth have always been fine and there’s been no recent change. But from my experience, dentists will insist that you undergo their personal “examinations” at least every once in a while or else the office will refuse to accept you as a patient even for a cleaning. So a hidden cost of having your teeth professionally cleaned is that you’ve got to let the dentist perform a cursory look-see; hence I speak of the extortion, which is to say, of the wresting of money by an abuse of authority. Unlike the removal of plaque, the dentist’s examination serves no greater good unless, of course, you have a history of problems with your teeth, such as cavities, which requires expert monitoring.
Just recently I was humiliated by an appalling example of this extortion. Typically, you see, the dentist employs certain tactics to mitigate the psychological trauma he inflicts by stealing your money while holding you essentially helpless. He’ll distract your attention by making chitchat and affecting an upbeat mood. Ideally, he’ll make you laugh a few times with his witty remarks. Next, he’ll give you the impression that you’re getting your money’s worth from him, by spitting out a few actual observations and technical recommendations, perhaps peppered with scientific jargon. Again, if your teeth have always been perfectly healthy, as mine have, everything the dentist says at this point will be strictly useless. But a talented dentist can still charm you by pointing out some trivia about your physiology, such as where your saliva glands are located. This way, you won’t feel so bad about what’s essentially a robbery that’s enabled by collusion among dentists.
The other day, though, my dentist decided to make use of no such techniques for my benefit. On the contrary, to begin with, he was nowhere to be found for ten or so minutes after the cleaning. Thus began the humiliation. Just think of it: the dentist can’t even be bothered to show up on time to receive the gift you’re about to hand him of $30 (or to be precise, $28); your money means so little to him, because his medical training has evidently entitled him to profit from this sort of scam so many times, that one such gift is a mere pittance. Worse, he knows that you know that he’s about to take your money and give you absolutely nothing in return, and that your only recourse is to go without professional cleaning of your teeth, which can cause serious health problems for you as you age, or so they say. Anyone smart enough to earn a medical degree will be smart enough to anticipate the psychological effect on the patient, first, of scamming you out of $30, but also of forcing you to sit in the dentist’s chair and wait for his Highness to manifest from the ethereal plane on which he resides so that he can receive your sacrificial offering. Thus, I’d have expected him on this occasion to resort to an overabundance of compensatory techniques, beginning with an effusive apology for being late. I was treated with no such apology.
Did the dentist maintain an upbeat mood to distract me while he practically reached into my wallet and extracted his shakedown money? My humiliation was mitigated by no such artificial lightening of the atmosphere. He merely swooped in, asked how my teeth are doing, and informed me that he was now going to look them over. Did he tell any joke or engage in other chitchat? None at all. Any jargon-ridden observations about my bone structure or whatnot? Nope. The hygienist even told him she’d taken two radiographs of my teeth (which cost an additional $30!) and he replied simply that he looked at them, declining to take that opportunity to expound on how this bone is connected to that bone. Did he offer any encouraging statements of the obvious such as, “Keep doing what you’re doing, keep flossing”? No, all he ended up saying was, “They look fine,” meaning my teeth. He said this and then he hurried out of the room, presumably to avoid any awkwardness of having to look his victim in the eye, but possibly also because he was late for his afternoon bath in wine. What of the “examination” itself? Its duration was exactly sixteen seconds, which I mentally counted, during which time he peered at my teeth while uselessly tapping at them a handful of times with a metal instrument. That tapping was his sole deference to decorum, since by thus feigning to effect some physical treatment, a dentist can give you the impression that your gift of $30 is at least going to a man who works for a living.
Naturally, after this humiliation I felt drained like I’d just been leeched by a vampire. Before entering the dentist’s cave I’d been hungry for lunch. Without the usual sugarcoating, though, the bitter pill not just of offering up tribute to a false god, but of enduring the trauma of sitting through the transparent charade stripped even of its customary pretenses, deprived me also of my appetite. I felt sick to my stomach, and this had nothing to do with the teeth cleaning. But to quote the Sam Roberts song, End of the Empire, “You can take what you want from me, but you better believe that I can see you.”