Op-Ed: Balenciaga's Sick Ad Campaign and What Comes After Moral Obligation


A Russian novelist and Nobel laureate who had been imprisoned for some of his writings and ultimately exiled from Russia, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn was invited to speak at Harvard University’s 1978 commencement ceremony.

In his speech, titled “A World Split Apart,” Solzhenitsyn highlighted the cowardice of the intelligentsia and politicians, the press’ enslavement to modern-day fashions, and the dangers of prosperity.

While it would be a worthy exercise to evaluate the whole of Solzhenitsyn’s speech, his discussion of moral obligation is most relevant to one of today’s hot topics: the Balenciaga scandal.

At one point, Solzhenitsyn argues, “In early democracies, as in the American democracy at the time of its birth, all individual human rights were granted because man is God’s creature. That is, freedom was given to the individual conditionally, in the assumption of his constant religious responsibility.”

To be clear, I am no Christian nationalist, nor do I believe that America was founded as a “Christian” nation. As I’ve argued elsewhere, “Christian” requires that Christ is essential. The state and the church have separate roles and functions that should not be combined; however, when the individual has no moral constraints, we run up against the difficulty of the human heart.

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Enter Balenciaga’s ad campaign. As disturbing as the images are, Balenciaga represents freedom from obligations and responsibility. It has pressed the limits of a now-ambiguous line that is blurred by what Solzhenitsyn calls “the abyss of human decadence,” against which “society appears to have little defense.”

I have no interest in or intention of defending Balenciaga. Yet I find it difficult not to see the Balenciaga campaign as a logical extension of a society in which individual freedom is no longer constrained by moral obligation.

While I would agree that the exploitation of children is deplorable, it isn’t clear to me, apart from my own biblical and Christian convictions, how Balenciaga’s executives, following the logic of humanism unconstrained by clear moral obligations, would have necessarily come to that conclusion. If the moral line is already moving, how would they know when it is going to stop?

To put it differently, we need to consider whether Balenciaga is an anomaly produced by bad actors or an inevitable, non-isolated emergence of unconstrained individual freedom that is problematic not because it stands apart from legal recourse but because it displays a disregard for the sort of self-editing that comes from a shared understanding of moral obligation.

Commenting on the Balenciaga campaigns, Rod Dreher noted, “As Tucker Carlson said last night, do you want to know why Jeffrey Epstein was still celebrated by the rich and famous, even after he was convicted of sex with minors? There’s probably a connection between that and what Balenciaga has done here. Among the super-rich, this stuff is normal.”

I am leery to agree that “among the super-rich, this stuff is normal” because the statement seems to isolate such perversions to the “super-rich.” No doubt there is a certain taste and sensibility I am happy to be lacking when it comes to haute couture or what often passes for art. Still, while tastes vary, the propensity to pursue individual freedom without any moral obligation is not only “normal” for the “super-rich” but is embedded within our society as a whole.

For instance, the digital signage on one of the “gentlemen’s clubs” along the highway on my route to St. Louis once displayed the following message: “College loan debt got you down… we’re hiring!” The parking lots of that club and the neighboring establishments are seldom empty. I don’t get the impression that the super-rich are filling the seats at these clubs. Whatever specific bad behaviors may be available to the super-rich, the problem is not isolated to those with more money than they can spend.

The problem is not the super-rich but our notion of freedom without moral obligation. It is our lack of self-restraint.

Some may argue that the backlash to Balenciaga is a moment when our collective moral will has come out of hiding to police those who are unwilling to be responsible for themselves. I’m not so sure. If, as Solzhenitsyn argues, “a society with no other scale than the legal one is not quite worthy of man,” a society whose recourse is online outrage seems equally doomed.

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As Malcolm Gladwell notes, “The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo.” Gladwell’s point is not that social media activism has no value, but that it has limitations. We’ve seen its utility in prompting Balenciaga to pull its campaign, but too many seem to revel in its shortcomings, including the propagation of conspiracy theories and ongoing “canceling” that distract us and allow us to revert to the status quo.

As individuals and individual corporations have exercised their freedom unconstrained by any established moral obligation, we have neglected the notion that these entities have responsibilities to the broader society. As Solzhenitsyn suggests, our task is “the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty so that one’s life journey may become an experience of moral growth, so that one may leave life a better human being than one started it.”

Balenciaga is a signal amid the noise reminding us that the world is broken. If we do not look beyond this signal to address the deeper challenges to which it points, we may well find ourselves facing the “devastation of civilization” that comes as we open up our already vulnerable world to the force of unrestrained and unaccountable human desire.

The solution is not more legislation, outrage or activism. Instead, the solution will involve a rediscovery of our need for non-legislative boundaries and strong-tie communities that will shape our character. We must fulfill our moral obligations because what we do in this life has implications beyond it.

The views expressed in this opinion article are those of their author and are not necessarily either shared or endorsed by the owners of this website. If you are interested in contributing an Op-Ed to The Western Journal, you can learn about our submission guidelines and process here.

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After working in higher education for over 15 years, Dr. James Spencer currently serves as president of the D. L. Moody Center, an independent non-profit organization inspired by the life and ministry of Dwight Moody and dedicated to proclaiming the Gospel and challenging God’s children to follow Jesus. His book “Useful to God: Eight Lessons from the Life of D. L. Moody” was released in March 2022. He previously published “Thinking Christian: Essays on Testimony, Accountability, and the Christian Mind” and co-authored “Trajectories: A Gospel-Centered Introduction to Old Testament Theology.”