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The paradox of confidence

People sometimes use language to signal what they want to be true rather than what is true.

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Have you ever noticed that the more certain you are of something, the fewer words it takes to say it? And conversely, the more you have to insist on your confidence of something or in someone, the more you call that confidence into question?

So it was the other day when I heard news that a young Boy Scout named Michael Auberry had gone missing while on a camping trip in western North Carolina. (It may take a village to raise a child, but in the 24-hour news cycle, it can take an entire nation to worry about one who is lost.)

As the search was going into its third night, a National Park Service spokeswoman said, "We're still confident that this is a search-and-rescue operation," delicately deflecting the question of the boy's survival.

In the next report I heard, she was "confident" the lad had been found. If he has been found, I wondered, why not just say, "We've got him"? At that point, "We're confident we've got him" didn't inspire the same confidence as the simpler utterance would have done.

I didn't really relax until more details came out, including word that the boy was dehydrated but otherwise in good condition. And the spokeswoman's announcement at the end was simply, "We have our missing Boy Scout."

The principle here is that people sometimes use language to signal what they want to be true rather than what is true. Oh, the paradox of such "confidence"! To have to articulate it at all is to call into question whatever it is you are confident of.

A woman fishing for her keys at the bottom of a capacious bag insists to herself, "I know they're in here somewhere. I'm sure I picked them up off the kitchen counter as I was heading out...." Once they're actually located, of course, the dialogue-with-self becomes simpler. "Oh, here they are."

On the same day that rescuers were locating the missing scout in the North Carolina mountains, another sort of rescue operation was under way in Washington.

President Bush made an early morning call March 20 to Alberto Gonzales, the beleaguered attorney general. Tony Snow, briefing the White House press corps later that morning, characterized the call as a "very strong vote of confidence" in Mr. Gonzales, despite the ongoing controversy over the dismissals of eight United States attorneys around the country.

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But I couldn't help noticing that much of the reporting on Mr. Bush's call and Mr. Snow's briefing ran under headlines saying things like "Bush phone call fails to defuse pressure on Gonzales to resign."

And the death of former Sen. Thomas Eagleton of Missouri earlier this month reminded the public how he had enjoyed "1,000 percent" confidence of George McGovern, the Democratic presidential nominee in 1972 – confidence, that is, right until McGovern dropped him from the ticket 18 days after naming him, after some revelations came out about Eagleton's medical history.

There's an idiom in English for situations like this. The source – as happens so often – is Shakespeare. In "Hamlet," the queen says, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks." In the context of the play, she's complaining that "the lady" – the figure in Hamlet's "play within a play" who is meant to represent her – asserts her love for her husband so aggressively that she invites suspicion.

"The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of a king," Hamlet himself says at the end of Act II. And so it proves. By their response to the play within the play, Gertrude and the new king, Claudius, give themselves away as the murderers of the late king.

"Protesting too much" has made its way into the language. It describes those who, by aggressively asserting their own confidence in what they say, manage to shake ours.

This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy.


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