WisCon 42 Retrospective: Dis Staff



This is not actually the blog post about the party generally, but it’s about something that kept happening during it, and which sort of dovetails with other things I have observed over the course of my many, many WisCons.

We are, or are supposed to be, a progressive convention. We were founded (before I was born, even) as an explicitly feminist convention, and in my view that mission has been appropriately expanded especially in the last decade or so. I hear a lot of talk every year at WisCon about class consciousness, about class issues, about economic justice.

And I hear a lot of it from people who just leave their trash on the nearest horizontal surface, or the floor. From people who will carefully peel an orange or banana and just as carefully dump the peel of it wherever. From people who will say things like, “That’s why we have a cleaning staff.” if you ask them to clean up after themselves.

I hesitate to imagine the tipping habits of these people.

So, the anchor of my party two years running is a sugar-free mocktail bar. Last year Jack ran it himself, and he ran himself ragged doing it. This year El, a friend of ours, offered to help, so he wasn’t running it alone.

This year, Jack decided he really wanted to look the part, so he wore a black vest and a white collared shirt. Over that he wore his WisCon badge/nametag on a lanyard covered with hard enamel pins. El was dressed snazzily but perhaps a bit less formally. I mention this because it seems like they had roughly the same experience, despite being very differently dressed.

Now, we have a mocktail bar because the convention’s contract with the hotel forbids the serving of alcohol by any convention event, unless it’s done by one of the hotel’s licensed bartenders. There are reasons for this and I think the party floor is honestly better for it (the hotel has a bar already, I love it) but I’ve talked about this elsewhere and won’t be going into it again here. The point is: we had no alcohol and were just serving a set of soda-and-syrup concoctions of our own devising, because Jack and El weren’t hotel staff.

A certain number — a small, but noticeable number — of guests proceeded to treat them as though they were hotel staff, which is to say, they were treated in a manner it would not be appropriate to treat anyone. Nothing that I think violates the code of conduct. I’m not talking about anything violent or abusive.

Just… dismissiveness. Inattentiveness. A lack of common courtesy. An unwillingness to listen or believe when it’s explained that 1. Only hotel staff can serve alcohol. 2. They were not hotel staff. 3. They could not serve alcohol.

A few people kept trying to hand their garbage across the serving area for our mocktenders to throw out, and when the trash can on the party side of the bar/buffet was pointed out, would ignore it and keep pressing it forward or just leave it on the table top that served as our bar. We were trying to observe some basic sanitation and food safety rules, so this was kind of upsetting.

I do think part of that latter problem was that the trashcan behind the bar was very visible and the one that was intended to be public-facing was tucked into a corner, so if we can get the same space next year I plan to move them a bit, but at the same time I’ve got no confidence that this will completely solve the problem because I think the problem is that these people saw someone in what they took to be a service position and assumed that meant they were there to handle garbage.

It’s honestly less the fact these few people were confused about the status of our mocktenders or missed the presence of a trash can in the public are and more the way they reacted when corrected, which was basically to ignore the correction, brush past it, and keep acting like “How dare this peon give me lip when I’ve made my wishes clear?” Or actually that’s probably more vehement than it really was. Probably closer would be, “I don’t understand why is this person talking and not [taking my garbage/making me a gimlet].”

And the bad thing here is not that they treated fellow convention-goers like they were hotel staff, it’s that they would treat hotel staff like this. It was after El and Jack had both told me of their experiences and I saw some tweets about what I saw as slightly hypocritical complaints about classism that I tweeted that the Venn diagram of people I’ve heard saying at WisCon that “Oh, this is really more of a class issue.” and the people I’ve heard defend their apparently deliberate messiness with “Oh, that’s what the cleaning staff is for.” would be a single circle.

And this also speaks to a conversation happening on Twitter right now about how the fact that you can pay the hotel for the club floors with their private lounge and nicer amenities is supposedly counter-progressive and listen, I have never heard anyone on the club floor level saying anything rude or dismissive about the hotel staff and when I think about the people I have heard and seen get incensed at mistreatment of our hotel staff, it’s all people I’ve seen on the upper floors. I’m not saying there’s a 1:1 correlation there, but I am saying that I think there may be some hypocrisy in the class-based arguments that are being made.

There’s no call to action here. I don’t think we need some kind of remedy for anything that happened at the party. It’s more just: this thing happened, and it put me in mind of a pattern, and I think the larger pattern is a problem that we need to address, as an ongoing thing.

I watched a grown man, older than I am, take a single cocktail shrimp, pull the tail off, carefully set it down on the buffet table, and walk away. The trash can was at the end of the table, four feet to his right.

That’s the kind of thing I would like to see less of, whether it’s at my party or anywhere else. And as I think about this, I realize that it’s not just hotel staff or people who might be mistaken for hotel staff at drunk o’clock at night, because we’ve heard stories about Con Suite volunteers (Volunteers! Who take time out of the con to make sure everyone gets fed! Voluntarily!) being treated like servants because they’re on the other side of a serving counter.

And I would bet that most of the people who do that, if you asked them at a random, disconnected time, if they know that the Con Suite volunteers are congoers like themselves, that they’re volunteers, doing unpaid work, they would know these things. Intellectually. But it’s like there’s a disconnect, as soon as someone is in a service position, they stop seeing them as anything except at best a tool to get what they want and at worst an obstacle between themselves and what they want.

And we’ve really got to do better, as a society and as a convention.

Because if your mindset is that anyone who is specifically there to help you is now some kind of scum that’s beneath you and must be treated as such, then nothing you do is going to be progressive or feminist or whatever as you think it is. You’re going to be constantly shooting yourself in the foot, ruining things for everyone, and this is to say nothing of the people you hurt through this kind of mistreatment

We really need to do better, while there are still people willing to work in the Con Suite and serve tasty things at parties and host the convention. We need to do better because we’re supposed to be better.